Chapter Forty

As a matter of habit, I always carried at least two formal dresses with me wherever I traveled.  In the past few months, there hadn’t really been any opportunities to actually use those dresses – flitting from one country to the next while destabilizing an international criminal conglomerate wasn’t the sort of hobby that lent itself to state dinners – but it still meant that I wasn’t caught completely off-guard by Virginia’s machinations.  

Devlin retired to his room, in order to piece together an outfit from his recently purchased goods, and I disappeared to do the same.  Virginia stayed downstairs in the kitchen, staring out of the back window onto the lawn, sipping from her beverage while we went.

Without any specific details to go off of, I decided to stick with the basics: a long-black evening gown, split up the middle up to my knees, complete with bared shoulders and a borderline indecent neckline.  A pair of strappy wedges I’d acquired somewhere went perfectly with the dress.  When I’d donned my clothing and teased my hair out into something that looked more like a fashion statement and less like a tuft of pipe cleaners, I gave myself a critical examination in a convenient full-length mirror. 

Not bad, Sarah,” I muttered to myself.  My fingers traced along my bare collar bone thoughtfully.  “Shame you don’t have anything sparkly for that little bit of pizzazz, but one does what one can.”

One does just fine, I think,” a male voice said from behind me.

I looked back over my shoulders and favored Devlin with a smoldering grin.  He was only peeking his head through the thin space between the door and the frame.  “You really shouldn’t just walk in on a lady while she’s changing, you know.  I could have been indecent.”

He returned my grin with one of his own, although his was more devilish than charming.  Or it was both.  It had always been difficult to separate the two, where Devlin was concerned.  “You didn’t lock the door,” he said.  “When I pushed on it, I expected it to be locked.  But please, forgive me for my intrusion.”

I winked at him.  It felt natural and easy to do it.  I didn’t like it when the easy rhythm between us was disrupted, and I certainly didn’t like being the reason for that disruption.  The conversation we’d had before my nap still lingered in my head and all of the unanswered questions his accusations had stirred up were still haunting darkened corners of my mind but, for the moment, it was good to just relax and let our conversation flow freely.  There’d be time to sort through my issues after we found the Mouse and contrived some way of taking Caelum out of play.

Mind if I come in?  Or are you planning on changing into something else?”

I pretended to think the question over and then shrugged, elegantly, with only one bare shoulder.  “No, I think this’ll do just fine.”

Devlin pushed the door fully open and stepped into the room.  As he came fully into view, it took all of my effort to keep my eyes from widening.

His other suit, specifically commissioned from our personal favorite tailor, had been cut from a fabric designed to endure a British winter.  In Georgia, Devlin would likely have drowned in his own sweat inside of a half hour while wearing it.  Instead, he’d gone to the store and picked up some lighter weight formal wear, including the suit he wore now.  

The Tom Ford was cut in a way that accentuated muscle while diminishing any unsightly curves or weight gain.  An electric blue tie was knotted at his throat in a classic Windsor, complete with a silver tie clip just above his solar plexus.  On Devlin, what with the muscle he’d put on in prison plus whatever mass he’d picked up under Mila’s tutelage, the effect was striking.  He hadn’t been gone long enough to commission a fully bespoke suit, as was his custom, but I suspected that he’d tipped a tailor to do some last minute alterations before bringing it back to the estate.  If not, then he’d been lucky enough to find a near perfect match for his physique.

Either way, it was a good look.  Good enough that I could only barely stop myself from comparing our appearances in my head.

Look at you,” I managed to say through suddenly dry lips.  “Did someone give you the heads up about this little shindig?”

He shook his head.  “I was actually out to pick up casual wear – light jeans, polo shirts, that kind of thing – when I happened on this store.  The pun was too good to pass up.  Besides, it’s not my money I’m spending, right?”

Which was a fair point to make.  The Lady was subsidizing all of our expenses with only a token attempt to keep track on our spending.  If purchasing a new suit for however much Devlin had spent got us even a millimeter closer to the Magi’s true identities, she would be only too happy to foot the bill.

Devlin closed the door behind him and locked it.  Involuntarily, I felt my breath quicken in my throat.

What are you –“

He put a finger over his lips and walked closer to me.  I turned away from the mirror so that I was facing him as he approached.  He closed the distance between us until there was only a foot or two between us.  We made eye contact and held that contact for what felt like an eternity.  There was something hanging in the air between us and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to acknowledge or ignore it.  I could sense, rather than see, that Devlin was struggling with the same question. 

He made up his mind first when he broke eye contact and spoke in a soft whisper.  “I reached out to Mila and Michel,” he said.

Disappointment – was it disappointment? – welled up from within me, but I pushed it back down and tried to focus on his words.  “And?”

Mila wasn’t able to get her hands on the supplies she wanted, but she’s apparently making due with some other options.  Less permanent options, if you catch my drift?”

It took me a moment, but I did.  I nodded to signify as much.

Michel,” Devlin continued, “is doing a tour of the city so that he can get his head around travel time and whatnot.  Either one of them can be at the Ford building within ten minutes, if we need them.”

It’s a fundraiser, Dev,” I said.  “I don’t think…well, let me not summon the wrath of the thing from on high, but you know what I’m getting at.”

And I told them as much.  She isn’t worried, but Michel is concerned about your cover.”

It was my turn to shake my head.  “Virginia was married for years to a businessman, and they were both inclined to tackle problems without waiting for the other.  She won’t think it’s weird if my fake husband is off somewhere else.  And you were kind enough to give her a valid reason why the two of us would be spending time together.”

The triptych, yes.”  Devlin smiled.  “I was particularly proud of that one.”

I swatted lightly in his direction and he easily dodged the strike.  “Don’t get cocky.”

I make no promises,” he said.  “Anyway, you’re the one who decided we were attending.  Care to share why with…well, it’s a small class, but the metaphor still stands.”

The room we’ll need to break into,” I said, “is five floors above the one where they’re holding the fundraiser.  I’ve got a valid reason to be at that party and I won’t have to actually sign in to any sort of system to enter the building.  Once I’m inside, though, no one’s really going to be looking at me. Virginia does have a tendency to suck up all the oxygen in the room.”

I don’t know about that.”

Don’t know about what?”

Devlin found something interesting in the corner of the room and locked his eyes on it.  “I don’t know that people aren’t going to be looking at you, that’s all.  Maybe in a different dress, or…no, actually, it wouldn’t really matter.  Are you sure you’ll be able to slip away without people following you with their eyes?”

Heat bloomed in my cheeks which, mercifully, weren’t capable of turning red.  “Yes,” I said, with a mixture of emotion that didn’t really belong in this conversation, “yes, I’m sure.  Anyway, I should be able to make up some sort of excuse that’ll get me out of the room long enough to examine what kind of physical security the server room has.  If someone sees me, so what?  I’m a Ford, it’s my family’s building.  I can go back to the party and no one will even think it’s all that strange.”

What am I supposed to do, then?” Devlin asked.

What you normally do.  Schmooze with the muckity-mucks, rub elbows, see if you can find out any information that might be useful to us in the long term.”

Devlin frowned slightly.  “I feel like I should be the one assessing physical security, Sarah.  No offense, but you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

In response, I walked over the dresser, dug around for a bit, and withdrew one of the miniature cameras I’d held onto.  “Which is why,” I said, “you’re going to be able to look over the footage later.”

Devlin had the good graces to look a little sheepish.  “I’m big enough to admit that I hadn’t thought about that.”  He paused.  “Oh!  I almost forgot.”

He rushed out of the room before I could ask him exactly what had slipped his mind and returned a moment later with a black velvet box.

Devlin,” I said slowly, “what is that?”

With no small amount of fanfare, he opened the box to reveal a brilliant blue gemstone set in a sort of golden harness.  The harness twined up into an unbroken long golden string.  In the electric light shining down from above, the gemstone glimmered and shone.

I opened my mouth to say something but my throat was too dry to form coherent sounds.  I swallowed, tried again, and found marginally more success.  “What is…what is this?”

Well, the guy behind the counter told me it was a necklace,” Devlin said, “but judging from your reaction, I feel like I should go get a refund.”

His flippant attitude helped me to get my figurative feet underneath me.  “You know what I mean, Dev.”

I wasn’t being fair to you earlier,” he said.  “I know that you’ve got issues that I don’t.  You know, family things.  So I thought I’d get you a little something to make up for it.”

A part of me wanted to tell him that he hadn’t been unfair, that he’d raised some valid questions that I needed to ask myself.  But voicing those thoughts would’ve raised other questions I’d been trying to avoid and this wasn’t the time.  I wasn’t honestly sure if it would ever be the right time, but now certainly wasn’t.  So I buried that part of myself as deep as I could and focused on finding an appropriate quip.

Well,” I said finally, “as long as we’re spending other people’s money.”

He gave me a strange look that I couldn’t read.  “This one,” he said, “I bought out of my own funds.  What good is an apology that someone else paid for?”

If my grandmother hadn’t chosen that exact moment to call to us from downstairs, I don’t know what I could possibly have said in response.  Maybe it would have been something lighthearted enough to get the two of us away from the dangerous ground we were currently treading on.  Or maybe those feelings I was trying to ignore – the feelings that threatened to pull me down everytime Devlin did or said something unexpectedly sweet – would have finally grown strong enough to have a voice of their own.

But she did call to us.  So what I actually said was easier to bear and infinitely more professional.  “That’s our cue,” I said.  “If you’d be so kind?”

Devlin nodded and stepped behind me to drape the necklace in place.  The gemstone rested against my sternum, just above my breasts, as if he’d taken me to the store and sized it with me standing there.

Do you like it?”

I swallowed down a lump of nervousness before answering.  “I can’t help but notice,” I said, “that it matches your tie perfectly.”

He shrugged a little too casually.  “Strange how that worked out, isn’t it?”

I smiled at him and he gave my shoulder a brief squeeze.  Then, without waiting for me to say anything else, he stepped away and left the room.

I spent another few seconds staring at my reflection in the mirror.  The necklace wasn’t the sort of thing I would normally wear, but it was exactly the kind of thing that Devlin would immediately fall in love with.  For a long-time art thief, he had surprisingly mundane taste in jewelry.  He never selected gaudy works, festooned with diamonds or elaborate filigree.  His tastes ran more in the direction of simple, unique pieces that stood out for their simple beauty.  Even the engagement ring he’d given me so many years ago had been an unremarkable polished green gemstone, fixed into a plain silver setting. 

But it had been from him and I’d loved it, just as I already loved this new gift.

My grandmother called for me again.  I slipped the miniature camera into one of my handbags and deliberated momentarily over what else I should bring with me.  Habit and prudence won out over my better angels.  I added the encrypted cell phone I used for jobs to the handbag, as well as two flash drives and a USB cable. 

All things being equal, it was probably better to be safe than sorry.  I hadn’t yet gone wrong by being too paranoid.

With all that packed up, I gave myself one last examination in the mirror before I gathered my things and headed down to the house’s main entrance. Devlin was leaning against the railing at the bottom of the stairs, one leg crossed at the ankle in front of another, engaged in a conversation with someone I couldn’t see.  When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I was surprised to find the guard from before, CJ, fiddling with the cuffs of a very expensive looking suit of his own.

When CJ saw me, he immediately stood up straighter and reached up to remove the hat he wasn’t actually wearing.  “Oh, uh, Miss Ford!”  His voice squeaked, like he’d just hit the worst part of puberty, and I smothered the urge to laugh.  “You look very lovely, ma’am.  That’s a very striking necklace you’ve got on.”

Oh, this old thing?”  I affected an impersonation of a Southern belle.  “You’re too kind.  And, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you all dressed up?”

Virginia entered the foyer from one of the side rooms, gesturing extravagantly as she spoke.  “You didn’t think I expect you to stay by my side all night, did you?”

My grandmother stepped into view and twirled like a little girl, allowing her deep red dress to twirl around her feet.  It tightened around the midsection and bust, giving her the appearance of a much younger – which was to say, bustier – woman than she actually was.  She’d curled her hair and done up her makeup, too.  The total effect wiped away at least thirty years from her face, if not more.

Look at you,” Virginia said.  She hurried to give me the grandmotherly once-over.  “You could afford to show a little more skin, I think, but otherwise I am impressed, Sarah!”

And you,” I countered, “are showing a little too much skin, aren’t you?”

Virginia waggled a finger at me.  “When you’ve been around as long as I have, you learn to work with whatever you’ve got left.  Besides, I don’t get the chance to make the boys go a little crazy all that much anymore, now do I?”

I started to respond, but my brain picked that moment to put two and two together.  I looked back at CJ who was openly staring at my grandmother. When he noticed my attention, he jerked his eyes away and muttered something vaguely apologetic under his breath.

Is he your actual date, then?” I asked, tilting my head in CJ’s direction.

Well, I don’t trust just anybody,” Virginia said.  “CJ’s been here for a long time and I know that he knows where to keep his hands.  Don’t you, CJ?”

Uh, yes ma’am,” CJ said, still not looking up.

Now!”  Virginia clapped her hands sharply together.  “We have a car waiting outside.  People to see, wallets to empty.  Your sister’s fundraiser isn’t going to fundraise for itself, will it?”

I rolled my eyes.  I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with this new, energetic, warm Virginia Ford, but I wasn’t exactly against it, either.  “I guess not.”

Scoot, then!”  Virginia put action to her words and actually started to push me from behind with one hand.  With her other, she nudged Devlin from his post and closer to the door.  Our shoulders bumped together as she shoved us toward the door.

She’d picked a car that didn’t quite have enough room for the four of us.  CJ sat next to her, leaving a respectable amount of distance, which forced Devlin and I into closer proximity than we might otherwise have chosen.  It wasn’t an uncomfortable fit by any means, but it took a bit of effort to make sure that our hands weren’t brushing together every time the car turned too quickly or hit a bump.

A bit of effort that I might not have always undertaken.  Devlin, bless his heart, didn’t seem to mind.   

Chapter Thirty-Nine

I woke up on top of the covers, still fully dressed. It had been early afternoon when I’d laid down; now, I could see the sun slowly dipping beneath the horizon through the window I faced.

How long was I out?” I asked, before I realized that the room was empty.

Bleary-eyed and groggy, I forced myself to sit upright and survey my lodgings. Michel’s luggage lay open and empty by the door, in almost the exact same position they’d been in before, but he was nowhere to be found. A single sheet of paper rested atop one of his trunks. It took me a few seconds to haul myself up and a few more seconds to make my way across the room to the note. Michel’s handwriting was filled with extravagant loops and exaggerated letters but it was perfectly legible…after a brief moment where I had to pause and gather my wits from the foggy depths of my mind.

Sarah,

We decided that you needed to sleep. Mila and I are exploring the city. She might have some friends in the area that could provide some help. Devlin went to reach out to the client and anyone else who might be able to point him in the right direction. Our phones are on, if you need us.

He hadn’t bothered to sign the note. The coded language was a nice touch, I had to admit. Mila’s “friends” were probably weapons brokers. Even though she claimed never to have been in Atlanta on business, that didn’t mean there weren’t lines of inquiry available to her. Why she’d taken Michel, of all people, was an entirely different question that I didn’t currently possess the faculties to parse.

The “client” was, of course, the Lady; the “anyone else” probably referred to the local underworld. I only possessed surface knowledge of Atlanta’s criminal hierarchy. Whenever I’d been forced to stay in or around my grandmother’s place, I generally kept to myself. Sure, the occasional network intrusion or redistribution of funds might have taken place – just to stave off the boredom, really – but I’d never attempted to pull off any grand heists in the area. The possibility of attracting the wrong kind of attention was simply too high. At the time, I’d been working with the barest margin of safety; really, anyone suitably motivated could have easily connected my real identity with my online one, back in those early days. I hadn’t even used two-factor authorization, for Christ’s sake.

I tossed the note into the trash can and began searching for something to change into: specifically, a comfortable pair of pajama pants and a t-shirt with four Disney princesses on it. Even with the Community’s deadline hanging over my head, there wasn’t any chance of us attempting an infiltration of the Ford building with only a few hours worth of notification. As such, I doubted that I’d be going out again. If I did end up having to leave the house, I could always shower and put on something more comfortable.

The fact that Devlin had always been a big fan of that particular shirt had nothing to do with my decision to wear it. At least, I was fairly sure that it didn’t.

I was only slightly more aware of my surroundings by the time I finished. Judging from the dying light, it was too late for normal people to drink coffee and caffeine had always played merry havoc with my sleep cycle. That being said, I had an ungodly amount of work to do and precious little time in which to do it. It didn’t take me long to decide that coffee, and all of its side effects, was just a physical necessity at that point.

I made my way downstairs and found Virginia standing in the kitchen, staring out over the back lawn through a sliding glass window. She wore a long white bathrobe, tied into a tight knot behind her back. She wasn’t speaking – wasn’t even moving – and she showed no no sign that she’d even noticed my entrance.

Virginia?”

She jerked in surprise and almost spilled whatever beverage she was drinking. “Lordy,” she said, when she’d had a chance to compose herself, “you snuck up on me, Sarah. Can’t be doing that to a woman of my age. No telling what could happen.”

I hadn’t intended to be particularly stealthy. “Sorry. I think that’s just a bad habit I picked up…you know, somewhere. Around.”

While you’ve been out there, hunting down art work for people, you mean?” A tiny grin worked its way across Virginia’s lips. “Do your parents know what you’ve been doing?”

I shook my head. “Why would they? Ever since I decided I didn’t want to follow in their footsteps, they’ve been pretty content to leave me to my own devices.”

Virginia’s grin faded. “Sarah,” she began.

I recognized a chiding tone when I heard one. Even though it had been hours since I’d spoken with Devlin, I still wasn’t in the mood for either a lecture or a fight.

Is that coffee?” I asked, pointing at the mug in her hands. “And if it isn’t, do you mind if I make some?”

Virginia lifted an eyebrow. There was little chance that she hadn’t immediately realized what I was trying to avoid; I could only hope that she’d respect the effort and back off the topic of my parents for the time being. Mercifully, she nodded after a second or two, and gestured with the mug towards a Keurig on the counter. “You remember where the mugs are?”

It was good to learn that everything hadn’t changed. The mugs were exactly where I remembered them being. Shockingly, it seemed like Virginia hadn’t replaced the mugs themselves, either. I moved the generic black and white mugs aside, in search of a very particular one. My search proved successful by the time I reached the third row.

Carefully, I extracted the mug and held it up for Virginia’s inspection. “You still have this?”

Of course I still have that,” Virginia said. “What kind of person throws away a Christmas gift from their baby granddaughter?”

The mug in question was a misshapen wreck of a thing, as if Frankenstein had made his monster out of clay instead of miscellaneous human body parts. Where the interiors should have been smooth, the walls melted over each other in waves and formed a gradual slope down to the inside bottom. It wasn’t perfectly circular, of course – my childish hands had lacked the dexterity to use the pottery wheel all that well – but had ended up in a sort of lazy oval instead. The handle had clearly been designed for someone with smaller, more delicate fingers than either myself or my grandmother.

I traced my index finger along the underside and felt the tiny grooves where I’d attempted to write my name before the clay had been able to dry. If my memory served me correctly, I’d made it as far as the second letter of my middle name before I’d simply given up and scribbled out a line to signify the rest.

What do you even do with something like this?” I asked.

I don’t show it off to guests, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Virginia said. I looked up from the mug and found a genuinely warm smile on her face. That just felt strange.

I mean…why hold onto it at all?”

Instead of answering, Virginia turned fully away from the sliding door and gave me a steady look for several long seconds. Then, she crossed the room, plucking the mug from fingers as she passed, and filled it with coffee from the Keurig. She handed it back to me before she spoke. “Are you being serious right now?”

There was an undeniable note of actual pain in her voice. She hid it well, but not well enough. In the face of that, I couldn’t find a way to articulate my thoughts. It wasn’t that I thought my grandmother didn’t love me. It was more that her form of love had always been fixed on the singular goal of making me the best woman that I, or anyone, could possibly be. To that end, she’d pushed me relentlessly, responded to failures with withering disappointment, and rewarded successes with a series of ever-increasing goals.

I understand why she’d raised me that way, of course. Virginia had grown up in a different time, when women – especially black women – had to work two or three times as hard in order to receive even half as much as privileged men. She had passed down that exacting work ethic to her daughter and, when my mother fell victim to the hands-off parenting style of the seventies and eighties, Virginia had taken it upon herself to toughen up her grandchildren.

Those lessons had taken root in my older sister, but not in me. When I’d taken my shares in the family business and set off to do my own thing, I’d expected her to go nuclear. I had not expected her to become a real-life version of Anna Huxtable.

No,” I said, “I’m just…nevermind, forget about it.”

The look on Virginia’s face told me, in no uncertain terms, that she would not forget about it. But she graciously dropped the subject anyway with a slight nod.

What are you looking at?” I asked, hoping to ease the transition into safer conversational territory.

Virginia shrugged one shoulder. “Nothing in particular. Just passing the time, is all.”

Waiting for something?”

I’ve got a fundraising thing tonight,” Virginia said. “You’d think retiring would give me a reason to skip these damn parties, but no, everyone still wants to meet with the original Ford.” She made a sour expression and I smothered the desire to laugh out loud.

What’s the charity?”

Virginia took a long sip from her mug. “You know your sister is chair of the outreach committee, don’t you?”

I did. Whenever I found the time to check all of my various email accounts, I made a special point to look into the company email address my parents had practically forced on me. Even though I didn’t work for the company – and, in fact, had never worked for the company in any official fashion – I was still privy to the internal memos and messages that passed through the halls of power. I’d seen the message about my sister’s promotion before leaving for London.

My grandmother must have seen acknowledgment in my expression because she continued without waiting for a verbal response. “Well, she started up a charity for battered women,” she said. “The committee decided that they ought to throw the first fundraiser in the city where the company started, with the woman who started it.”

Did you get any say in that?”

Not a bit,” Virginia said. She made the sour smile again. “If I’d known you were coming to town, I might have been able to…”

Virginia trailed off, mid-sentence. It didn’t take a genius to figure out where her thoughts had traveled to. “Listen, I am not going to -”

The front door opened before I had a chance to finish my sentence. Virginia and I both turned to look in that direction. A minute later, Devlin entered the kitchen. He had a few shopping bags distributed between his hands or adorning his arms. When he saw me and my grandmother, he froze in the doorway, like we’d caught him doing something wrong.

Did I, uh -” He stopped, gathered his thoughts, and started again with the faint Irish accent in his voice now. “Am I interrupting something? I was just thinking about making a little something to snack on, after a hard day out on the town.”

I pointed at the bags on his arms. “What are those?”

He obviously didn’t get the joke. The rise of meme culture must have passed him by during his years behind bars. “Had to do a bit of shopping,” he said. “What I brought wasn’t really, uh…fit for the environment.”

Sweating like a whore in church, eh?” Virginia asked.

I blinked. Devlin did the same thing. He pieced together the meaning a little faster than I would have expected, judging from the slightly awkward chuckle he offered up in response. “I suppose you could say that, sure.”

Virginia’s eyes narrowed slightly. It wasn’t a big thing. A random observer would’ve noticed it, sure, but they wouldn’t have had the necessary context to understand what it meant. It wasn’t the expression she made when she sensed a secret in the wings. It wasn’t even the face she made when she was angry, perturbed, or otherwise upset.

No, the expression on her face was the one she wore she was scheming.

Devlin could have figured it out, given time and the opportunity to focus exclusively on decoding my grandmother’s nonverbal tells. He had neither of those, however. So he walked, face-first, into Virginia’s plot.

Is that a Tom Ford bag I see?” Virginia asked.

It seemed appropriate,” Devlin said.

Virginia turned to me. “Sarah, where’d that handsome man you came here with get to?”

I didn’t know exactly where Michel was, but I couldn’t say that to Virginia. Something told me that she’d frown at the knowledge that he was off somewhere with his…I didn’t really know what Mila was to him, but it was entirely too complicated to explain to my grandmother, even if that whole ‘in search of illegal weapons’ thing wasn’t a factor.

Out,” I said lamely. The word was barely out of my mouth before I regretted my vagueness.

That same vagueness didn’t seem to bother Virginia at all. “Hmm. I suppose, then, that means you need an escort for this fundraiser, doesn’t it?”

Fundraiser?” Devlin asked. “Escort? What did I miss?”

Sarah was going to come with me to a party tonight,” Virginia said, “and I was just thinking that she’d probably want someone she knows to go with her. They can get so boring, after all.”

I held up both hands, palms facing Virginia, and took a step away from her. “I did not agree to do any such thing.”

I’m an old woman,” Virginia said. She placed a hand on her hip, as if that weak effort was actually going to fool me. “I don’t know if I’m up to all the schmoozing and hand-shaking.”

Okay, but I’m not up for all that, Virginia! I decided not to work for the company for several very good reasons. Some of which were specifically related to doing this sort of gladhanding.”

Virginia sighed, shifting her attention back to Devlin with a minor adjustment of her eyes. “It’d be too much to ask you to come with me, I suppose. We only met this afternoon. It’s alright; I’ve been hosting events like this for…what, fifty years? One more won’t kill me.”

I knew what she was doing. Virginia wasn’t even trying to be subtle about the manipulation. I opened my mouth to warn Devlin, but caught myself off before my lips had an opportunity to form so much as a single syllable. There wasn’t a clear reason in my head that kept me from speaking, so much as an amorphous feeling.

She’d kept my childhood abortion of a coffee mug for years. Was it really so much for her to ask me to accompany her to a silly fundraiser? I’d attended dozens of them in my youth. Odds were high that I’d be able to navigate through the sycophants and dilettantes with a third of my attention.

Oh my God,” I said. A good portion of the exasperation in my voice was genuine; the rest, I faked, just so that she didn’t think she’d gotten her way without difficulty. “Where even is this thing?”

At the office,” Virginia answered immediately. “They turned the fifteenth floor conference room into a ballroom for the event, I think. Why does that matter?”

The fifthteenth floor conference room?”

Virginia nodded. “The servers, up on the twentieth, put off too much heat. Otherwise, they probably would’ve tried for a rooftop thing. You know your sister’s so avant garde with these things.”

It was either too good to be true or a vicious twist of fate. Either way, it was too coincidental to ignore.

I turned to Devlin. “I guess we’re keeping her company tonight, then.”

He gave me a questioning look with his eyebrows and I responded with a nonverbal assurance. Virginia seemed pleased that she’d gotten her way and began busying herself around the kitchen.

It didn’t occur to me until days later that her manipulation had never been aimed at Devlin to begin with. And it took me months to figure out what she’d really been after, in the first place.

It only took Virginia hours to figure out what I’d been after.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Virginia’s home had enough space to house twice as many people as I’d brought with me, with room to spare, but she contrived a reason to place us all within the same wing of the building. Michel and I shared a room, to our mutual intense embarrassment. Mila requested a room with a corner view which, conveniently, happened to be located in a spot which gave her a great vantage over the driveway and any approaching vehicles. Devlin made no special requests and he ended up, by sheer coincidence, only two rooms away from me.

He and I hadn’t spoken since the brief exchange down in the kitchen. If I’d been honest with myself, I would have acknowledged that my reactions weren’t very fair to him. He had every right to be upset. Maybe I would even gone so far as to accept that his side commentary was the least I deserved for springing so much on him, with so little warning. But I wasn’t honest with myself, so I stalked into the room without so much as a glance in his direction, and slammed the door with far more force than necessary.

It was petty, sure, but that didn’t make it feel any less good.

A moment later, the doorknob turned and I prepared to hurl verbal fire at Devlin. I choked back the insults when Michel’s head appeared around the corner, instead of my ex-husband’s. “Should I go somewhere else or…?”

I blew out a breath and ran both hands through my hair before answering. “No, you’re…you’re fine. This is your room too, apparently. At least as long as we’re stuck working out of my grandmother’s house.”

Michel opened the door wide enough for him to slip inside, then closed it behind him with a soft click. Between CJ and the as-yet unnamed guard, our luggage had been moved inside and placed in appropriately discreet places. Michel crossed the room to his luggage and sat down on top of a trunk. He didn’t say anything, choosing instead to tilt his head and turn a level gaze in my direction.

I endured that for as long as I could – a full two minutes, which seemed more than reasonable to me – before I started to angrily unpack my own suitcase. Still, I felt his eyes on my back.

What?” I asked, without turning around. Clothes flew out of the suitcase and only managed to land in the bed’s general area, instead of on the mattress proper.

I did not say anything.”

I know that you aren’t saying anything, Michel. I would prefer it if you did, instead of trying to communicate whatever you’re thinking through the sheer power of brainwaves.”

I was not…” He cut himself, waited a few seconds, and tried again. “I am not sure what to think. If it feels like I am trying to tell you something, it is not on purpose.”

You’re not sure what to think about what?” Devlin had told me at one point that repeated questions implied the speaker was struggling to find conversational footing. The knowledge that he’d easily be able to read through my actions only stoked my anger higher. “Do you think he was right, doing what he did?”

I am not sure what he did,” Michel stressed. “Remember, I am not a native speaker, Sarah. Innuendo does not always translate well.”

You aren’t a – nevermind. You do understand that he was saying two things at the same thing downstairs, right? Even if you don’t necessarily get what he meant?”

He cleared his throat, just as I reached the bottom of a suitcase. I weighed the merits of turning my emotions to the task of savaging another one, but decided against it. Michel hadn’t done anything wrong. I wasn’t even sure that Devlin had really done anything wrong, current emotional storm notwithstanding. I cleared a spot on the bed for me to sit and took my place there, facing Michel.

I know what you are talking about, yes,” he said.

And do you think he was right to do what he did? To say what he said?”

Michel responded with a helpless shrug. “What do you think, Sarah? He did not say those things for my benefit. I think that Emilia noticed, but I also do not think she cares. And it certainly was not for your grandmother.”

I paused to give that a little bit of thought. Michel had a point. It wasn’t as though Devlin had coded messages in such a way as to put me down in front of my grandmother. Maybe if she’d known about our late marriage, but otherwise? She was likely to chalk it up to a personality quirk and move on to other, more important things. So why would he say things that he knew I’d understand and take offense at?

Devlin was a spur-of-the-moment thinker, a man who acted first and thought things over days or weeks later when the dust settled. He was getting better at crafting plans that took longer than a few seconds to put into action, but it was still wildly out of character for him. He let his emotions do the talking and simply followed in their wake, whenever possible.

So his actions downstairs couldn’t have been a part of some grand plan to get under my skin. He hadn’t the time to come up with anything like that, to begin with, and Devlin had never been particularly petty. What possibilities did that leave, then? Could he have just been showing off, demonstrating his ability to think faster on his feet than I could, and throwing in a little touch of double meaning to vent his emotions? Or had it just slipped out, unplanned and unbidden?

That last bit seemed like the most likely answer. Except that, in order for it to be true, Devlin would have needed to be completely off of his game. When he was playing a character, he became that character. Outside of the occasional nose-tweaking – his immediate rivalry with Hill came to mind – he wouldn’t ever risk breaking character and he certainly wouldn’t risk burning an identity just to score a point. Unless…unless he was that hurt by the revelation that I’d never told my parents about his race. If that was the case, there was no telling exactly how rattled he might be.

I’d expected to hurt him, but I hadn’t expected to shatter him. Even though I wasn’t quite sure what I’d done or why it had affected him so much, a deep pool of guilt welled up in my stomach.

Michel? How…how bad did I mess up?”

He gave the question a serious amount of consideration before he answered. Even as I found myself irritated at the prolonged silence, I appreciated that he wasn’t just spouting the first thing that popped into his mind.

I have been kept secret before,” Michel said finally. He was speaking slowly, like someone who’d just learned the language instead of a near-native speaker. “It was not a…pleasant experience.”

Put in that light, I felt even worse about my omission. “That’s not the same thing,” I protested.

Is it not? You were in love, but you did not want anyone to find out exactly who you were in love with. How is it different?”

I opened my mouth to reply and, slowly, closed it as I realized that I didn’t actually have an argument in my defense.

Michel continued, slow and inexorable. “I do not think you have ruined anything, if that is what you are worried about.”

You’re telling me that I basically buried Devlin in the closet, didn’t let him know he was in the closet, and then sprung it all on him without giving him a chance to adapt. How would that not ruin things?”

There are differences in the situation,” Michel said.

Like?”

He gave me a long, intense look. I got the impression that he was attempting to transfer some message, using nothing but his eyes, but I couldn’t quite get a grip on his meaning. I drew in the breath to ask him to speak his thoughts plainly, but a knock at the door interrupted me.

Sarah?” Devlin’s voice, tentative and hesitating. “Can we talk?”

Before I had an opportunity to respond, Michel stood up and made his way over to the door. “I need to see what vehicles your grandmother has in her garage,” he said. “It will be better to know now than to find out later, no?”

It was a thin excuse and we both knew it. But I made no effort to stop him. Michel allowed Devlin to enter the room, slipped around him, and shut the door in his wake.

Devlin and I stood alone, several feet apart, looking at any- and everything in the room except each other. Academically, I was willing to accept that I’d dealt him a deeper wound than expected, but my pride still wouldn’t allow me to make the first peace overture. I tried to will Devlin to understand my position: he’d attacked me for making the only possible decision I could have made, given the circumstances, and I wasn’t about to pretend that I could have made any other choice. I was sorry that I’d hurt him, and I understood that he had his own valid reasons to be upset with me, but I just couldn’t take the first step without ceding some ethereal territory.

Either he understood or he was less welded to his own pride. Whatever the cause, Devlin extended the olive branch before I was forced to. “I shouldn’t have said those things,” he said. “I’m sorry about that. It was a mistake that I made because…well, whatever the reason, it wasn’t appropriate. Really, I’m sorry.”

With that first step taken, I was free to speak my own thoughts. “I didn’t think about how it would affect you,” I admitted. “And I really should have considered that. That one’s on me, and I’m sorry for insulting you like that.”

He blinked. “Insulting me? What’re you talking about?”

It wasn’t like I thought you weren’t good enough for them or anything like that,” I said. “You know that wasn’t the case, don’t you?”

It really hadn’t crossed my mind, but it’s good to hear anyway.”

Devlin’s tone said the exact opposite of that, but I didn’t realize that until I was already halfway through the next sentence before my mind caught up and translated his body language into something I understood.

My parents aren’t even like that,” I said. “But that’s not the point. I shouldn’t have kept you a secret from them and I really want you to know that I get how big of a deal it is.”

Sarah,” Devlin said. He dragged out the two syllables of my name and, finally, I caught the hint of danger in his voice. I wasn’t at all frightened of Devlin’s anger – at most, he might raise his voice, but even that was unlikely in a situation where my grandmother could hear his voice – but the possibility that I’d somehow misspoken again loomed like a mountain in the distance.

Did I say something wrong?” I asked. “You know I’m not good at this, Dev, but -”

He raised a hand and cut me off, mid-sentence. “Do you even understand what upset me? Actually, truly understand?”

I thought over the last few minutes of conversation and cross-referenced them with the exchange we’d had in the car on the way over to my grandmother’s house. “I…think so?” I said, finally. “You’re upset that I didn’t tell my parents that you’re white, as if I was somehow ashamed of that.”

He barked out a sharp, bitter laugh. “You think that bothered me?”

…did it not?”

Don’t get me wrong,” Devlin said, “that’s plenty irritating, but seriously? It’s not like I forgot about the differences in our skin color. I don’t think about it often, but you really have no idea how much shit I got from other crews back when we were…well, you know.”

I might not have known specifically, but I had a pretty good idea and was willing to bet that I’d dealt with a lot more subtle racism and sexism than Devlin. This didn’t seem like the right moment to bring that up, though.

What, then?” I asked. “What got you so upset?”

Sarah, you weren’t hiding me from your parents because you were ashamed of the fact that I’m white,” Devlin said. “I mean, sure, maybe that had something to do with it, but that wasn’t the real reason.”

I felt my hackles begin to rise. I tried to suppress the flash of anger and was only moderately successful. “Then why? Please, Devlin, tell me exactly what I was feeling.”

You were ashamed that I’m a thief,” he said immediately. “Not even that, actually. You were ashamed that you’re a thief.”

The anger that had threatened to rise up, higher than my internal walls, evaporated instantly. Was he right? Devlin did have an eerie ability to accurately spot what someone was actually feeling, as opposed to what they claimed to feel. He wouldn’t have been very good at his job, otherwise. But was he actually able to read me that well?

I tried to distance myself from my own thoughts, so that I could examine them dispassionately. The effort wasn’t wholly successful, but I did manage to give myself a bit of perspective. In the deepest parts of my heart, I knew that my parents wouldn’t really have cared all that much about Devlin’s race. Even if they had, it wasn’t as though I’d decided to live my entire life based on what did or did not meet their expectations. So why had I used that as a scapegoat?

The answer came back from the hollows of my mind instantly: because it was easier. Devlin didn’t have a biological family anymore. He made light of that fact and generally tiptoed around the subject, but facts were facts. He wouldn’t have been able to understand the delicate interplay between an average mother and daughter pair, or a pair of siblings Toss in the added difficulty of my family’s public identities and it quickly became impossible that Devlin would be able to do more than build a vague mental model of them. Essentially, blaming my failure to properly inform them of matters would have fallen outside of his experience..if and only if that had been my real reason for staying quiet. The more I thought about it, the more I was beginning to doubt that fact.

Devlin was still talking. “That’s why you didn’t want to tell them about me. How do you explain how we met?  You’d have to pick a lie and stick to it, forever. When your family asks what I do for a living – and we both know that was going to be a question, at some point – what answer do you give them? Art acquisition? Wealth redistribution?” He laughed again and the sound was almost acrid in the humid air of the house.

That…that isn’t true,” I protested, hating the weakness and insecurity in my voice. “Why would I even be ashamed of that?”

Devlin shrugged both shoulders. “How should I know? I’m not in your head, Sarah; I’m just good at picking up on signals. And you were signaling ‘shame’ the entire way from the airport to your grandmother’s house. Now that we’re here…” He trailed off, inviting me to fill in the rest of his thought, without explicitly inviting me to do so.

I couldn’t find any words to fill the silence. As soon as Devlin had spoken his suspicions out loud, they’d found purchase in my brain and refused to relax their grip. I restricted myself to staring in his direction, while my mouth worked open and closed in search of the proper answer.

No such answer arrived.

After nearly a full minute of this, Devlin shrugged again. “Anyway. I just wanted to apologize. It won’t get in the way of the job again, promise. I just needed some time to process.”

I wanted to tell him that he was processing this wrong, that there were a dozen reasons why someone in my position would have made the choice I’d made. But that would have been a lie: there were only a precious few reasons someone would emerge from the shelter of privilege, take up life as a hacker, and still balk at the idea of introducing a loved one to family.  Fear wasn’t one of them.

So, what was Devlin actually right? Was I using the imagined reactions of my parents as an excuse to cover some deep-seated insecurities?

Are we good?”

I hauled myself back into the present. “What?”

Are we good?” Devlin repeated. “Everyone made mistakes, so everyone could use a do-over. Sound like a deal?”

I nodded to signal my agreement, but also because I couldn’t quite trust my voice. Almost every cell in my body wanted to violently defend themselves against his accusations, but not all of them. Some of them only wanted to curl up in a ball and steadfastly refuse to accep the validity of Devlin’s arguments.

Devlin took the nod as assent, turned, and left the room without another word. I was pretty sure he was still keeping some things close to his vest – which he always did – but I couldn’t deal with the prospect of navigating through his accusations and then checking myself for any corresponding thoughts.

What I needed, I realized, was an appointment with Doctor Bridges.

But, that appointment being currently out of the question, I choose instead to busy myself with the process of unpacking and cleaning up the mess I’d made while tearing through my luggage. That didn’t take nearly as long as expected. I sought out places to stash clothing and made use of them. Still, no one returned to the room.

Eventually, with nothing left to do, I laid down on the bed and allowed exhaustion to seep back into my conscious mind. When Michel returned to the room – if Michel returned to the room – he would have found me passed out on top of the sheets. To an outside observer, I might even have looked peaceful in sleep.

But, within the walls of my own mind, I was anything but peaceful. Echoing refrains of Devlin’s accusation returned to me in the darkness, time and time again, and my sleep – if that’s what you could even call it – was anything but restful.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

So,” Virginia said, “how long are the four of you planning on staying?”

I’d already distanced myself from the conversation, mentally speaking. Thoughts and ideas about how we could gain access to the server floated to the surface of my mind as I began the process of bashing together some semblance of a plan. I’d been inside the local office, but I’d only ever done that with permission. Even the network intrusions of my youth had been aided by an official access card. Any organization with as much propriety information as Ford Enterprises would be equipped with formidable security. Nothing I couldn’t bypass, given sufficient time or the aid of specialists within the Community, but still impressive fortifications.

But I didn’t have time and the Community was, for all intents and purposes, neutralized as a possible ally. That meant I’d have to find some other method of sidestepping whatever security measures my family’s organization had put into place, I had to accomplish that without leaving a fingerprint that could be traced back to me or the team, and I had to do it all in the next few days. Without suitable equipment. Or an opportunity to create anything other than the barest possible outline of a plan of attack.

 

God, I was getting tired of this. Just once, it would’ve been nice if the forces arrayed against us – or, really, arrayed against the Lady, but there wasn’t a functional difference at this point – gave me a week or two to research, run simulations, or set up plans for complications.

 

Sarah? You hear me?”

 

I blinked and hauled my thoughts back to the present. “What’d you say?”

 

I asked how long the four of you are staying in Atlanta,” Virginia repeated. “I haven’t seen you in years and I was hoping we’d be able to talk about…I don’t know, about things. How’s your life, what you’re up to. You know, that kind of thing.” She shot a significant look at Michel and, surprisingly, Devlin.

 

Only a couple of days,” I said. “It’s just looking like it’s going to take us longer than expected to get that information we’re looking for.”

 

If you need to access the network, I can make a call, Sarah. It wouldn’t even take that much time, you know.”

 

I shook my head and waved off the offer. “It’s been a long time and the files probably aren’t even there anymore. I know a few other ways of getting them; it’ll just take longer, is all. It’s not a big deal.”

 

Where are you going to stay, then?”

 

I reached into my oversized purse and removed the tablet. While I spoke, my fingers flew across the screen, pulling up the websites for several local hotels. There were several with suitably high ratings in the area. Some of them would probably afford us the privacy I’d need if I wanted to set up an impromptu command room.

 

Virginia reached over and placed her hand in front of the screen, blocking my line of sight. “You never were good at picking up on little clues, were you?”

 

What do you mean?”

 

I mean,” Virginia said, “that you’re out of your mind if you think I’m going to let my grandbaby and her husband stay in a hotel when I’ve got this big house all to myself and all these rooms with no one in ’em. To say nothing of this woman who’s been keeping you safe and your business partner; I insist you stay here for as long as you need.”

 

My brain chose that moment to lock up. Devlin must have been waiting for that, because he stepped in without missing a beat. “Now, Miss Ford, you know we can’t possibly take advantage of your hospitality like that. You were expecting to meet up with your granddaughter and all of us just showed up alongside her.”

 

You can, Mister Murphy, and you will.” A glimpse of her indomitable will shone through her pearly smile. “How much do you know about old southern women?”

 

Devlin feigned a few moments of thought, then shrugged. “Not as much as I thought I did, apparently.”

 

Oh, he and I were going to have words, just as soon as we had a few moments away from Virginia.

 

Let me let you in a little secret, then.” Virginia leaned closer and lowered her voice to a stage whisper. “When we invite someone into our houses, the only thing you say is ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘thank you.’ Understand?”

 

A few seconds ticked by. Snide commentary aside, Devlin was more than capable of doing the math without my input. Working from within my grandmother’s estate would make things even more difficult than they already promised to be. Working against the woman would likely make things impossible. All she needed to do was make a single phone call to the office, ostensibly to help me find the mysterious files, and an undeniable connection would be drawn between the online sobriquet of ‘Irene Adler’ and the very real person ‘Sarah Ford.’

 

Yes ma’am,” he said finally. “And thank you.”

 

See? You’re learning just fine.” Virginia relaxed in her chair and took another bite from the pie. “It’s not all that bad, I suppose.”

 

Fine,” I said. “We’ll stay here, if you’re going to make a whole thing out of it. But as soon as we finish our business here, we’re going to go after the pieces we’re looking for. I don’t want you to get upset when that happens.”

 

Pieces?” Virginia raised an eyebrow. “I thought it was just one thing you were after?”

 

In my poleaxed state, I’d drawn the cover story just a bit too close to reality. Again, Devlin stepped in and answered on my behalf. “It’s a triptych, ma’am,” he said. “Wouldn’t do my client any good to get her hands on one piece, if the other two are still out there, floating around.”

 

Normally, his quick wit was the kind of thing I appreciated. Since he’d apparently decided to use those talents to take shots at me from a position of safety, I had to fight down the strong urge to speak over him. The fact that he’d provided an adequate cover, drawing the line even closer to the truth, only irritated me more.

 

Oh,” Virginia said. “Well, I never was into art. Didn’t know you were either, Sarah.”

 

We’re all just full of surprises,” I said.

 

She must have caught a whiff of the tension coalescing in the air between Devlin and me, because her eyes narrowed for an instant. Then her expression smoothed back out and she put the matter out of her mind. “You’ll need sheets,” she said. “And at least three separate rooms.”

 

Three?”

 

Just because I got a little gray in my hair doesn’t mean I forgot what it was like to be your age,” Virginia said. She waggled her eyebrows at me, then at Michel, before I got it. He met my eyes, read something in them, and started coughing around his mouthful of pie.

 

Oh! No, we’re not going to…God, why would you think that?”

 

I’m not saying anything,” Virginia said, with a half-smile on her face. “Just pointing out that this is a big house. Lot of space between the rooms. Nice, sturdy walls. That’s all I’m saying.”

 

I’d never been so happy to find myself occupied with the problems and difficulties of a potential job. There simply wasn’t any room in my head to accommodate the images that my grandmother’s heavy-handed innuendo attempted to conjure up.

 

Do not worry about that,” I said, “and do not bring it up. God! You’re…that’s just not the kind of thing you say to your granddaughter, Virginia!”

 

You’re grown enough to call me by my name,” Virginia countered. “I just figured you were grown enough to talk like adults. My bad, then, my bad. And Mister…I mean, Devlin? You’ll need a room to yourself, unless you and Emilia here…?”

 

Devlin and Mila exchanged a look and then, simultaneously, burst out laughing.

 

He recovered first.  “Oh, not at all.  I’ve had a chance to get to know her a little bit, while we’ve been on this little hunt of ours, but nothing like that.”

 

She’s an attractive woman, though, isn’t she?”  Virginia’s  voice had an odd inflection that I’d never heard from her before.

 

I suppose,” Devlin said.  “But – and I mean no offense, Emilia – she’s not really my type.”

 

Mila snorted.  “Yeah,” she said.  “Let’s go with that.”

 

Virginia scrutinized the two of them for another second or two before she rolled her shoulders.  “Three rooms, then.  Shouldn’t take me too long to find the linens.”

 

I thought that she would bustle away to fetch the linens herself, considering her newfound domesticity, but Virginia reached for a cordless phone instead.  She pressed three numbers in rapid succession and then spoke into the handset. 

 

CJ,” she said, “would you be a dear and come give me a hand?”

 

She tilted her head as CJ responded.

 

No, no, nothing’s wrong.  I just don’t think I can run up and down these stairs anymore and it’d just be easier if you do all the cardio for me.  Women my age shouldn’t be stressing their knees, you know.”

 

CJ said something pleasant, if the smile that spread across Virginia’s face was any indication.

 

I’ll meet you by the door, then.  Shouldn’t take too long.”  Virginia hung up the phone, nodded in our direction, then left the kitchen.

 

As soon as she was out of sight, I whirled on Devlin.  “What the hell are you thinking?”

 

I’m thinking,” he replied evenly, “that we’re going to have a harder time here than we’d expected.  Which isn’t particularly surprising, I guess.”

 

That’s not what I’m talking about,” I hissed.  It was important to keep my voice down, lest Virginia catch what we were saying.  I wouldn’t have put eavesdropping past her.  “And you know that’s not what I’m talking about.”

 

I’m playing a role, Sarah,” Devlin said.  A flash of heat found its way past his neutral mask, but only  for the briefest instant.  “If I want to play the role well,  then I need to make sure that any emotions I can’t completely conceal fit within the context of my character.”

 

Emotions you can’t conceal?” I parroted.  “And what emotions are those?”

 

He gave me a withering look in response, then blatantly dodged the question.  “I don’t tell you how to hack,” he said, “and you don’t tell me how to play characters.  That’s how we’ve always worked.  Even if you don’t like what I’m doing, at least trust that I’m not stupid enough to torpedo our whole thing because you hurt my feelings.”

 

And I did trust that.  After all, he hadn’t blown our cover.  If anything, he’d stepped in at the perfect moment to maintain it.  Knowing that didn’t make me less angry or less confused, though.

 

Michel cleared his throat.  I noticed that he hadn’t finished his pie and wondered why that might be.  “We do not have time for this, do we?”

 

I took a deep breath and let it out in slow, evenly spaced increments.  When I finished, my emotions weren’t quite under my control, but they had at least been lassoed into a general order.  “No,” I said, “we do not.  But we will talk about this later.”

 

Devlin nodded.  As I watched, he slipped into that professional personality, the icy cold thief whose eyes never strayed from the prize ahead.  He rarely did that unless the situation was dire and the only reason I could imagine he was doing it now was that the cold persona wasn’t overly concerned with emotion.

 

For those of us who don’t know anything about computers,” Devlin said, “what’s the  newest wrinkle in our plan and how do we smooth said wrinkle out?”

 

I smothered the urge to ignore his question.  “The server I used when I was younger – the same one that Caelum presumably used when he was searching for the Mouse – is located within the local Ford Enterprises office.  I was hoping to gain access to the building, using Virginia’s keycard, but that’s not going to work anymore.”

 

Can you get in remotely?” Mila asked.   She reached across her body and took a large chunk of Michel’s pie without bothering to look. 

 

I could,” I said.  “It would take time,  but it’s possible.   I’m not going to, though.”

 

Why not?”

 

The time thing, for one.  The minutes keep ticking away until the Community decides that collective suicide is the best option.  But, more importantly, I can’t forget about Caelum.” 

 

Mila took another bite of Michel’s pie and I found myself wishing that I had another slice.  It would give me something to do with my hands, if nothing else.   “What about him?”   

 

If I were trying to find someone’s real identity,  I’d make a point to lay traps everywhere I thought that person might go and in every system that person might attempt to access.  It’s too risky to use any of my exploits, if there’s even the vaguest possibility that he might be able to backtrack me through them.”

 

So that means…”

 

I sighed.  “It means I have to physically interface with the server.  Anything else would leave a digital trail.  I can just brute-force any security they’ve got in place with physical access, pull the logs, and sort it all out when we get back to safety.”

 

Physically interface with the server,” Devlin mused.  “In layman’s terms?”

 

Break into the offices of Ford Enterprises, sometime in the next couple of days.  I’ll have to go with you, because you don’t know what you’re looking for and I don’t have the time or inclination to teach you.”  I was a little harsher than normal, but he deserved it.  “Download whatever information Caelum left on the server – logs, digital fingerprints, signature techniques, and so on – without somehow setting off some kind of trap that’ll lead to our gruesome and violent deaths at the hands of the Magi.”

 

Also,” Mila said, around yet another mouthful of Michel’s pie, “we’ve got to get  you past your grandmother’s security outside, without tipping them off.  Seems like we wouldn’t want anyone talking about how Sarah Ford came to visit her grandmother, only to slip away in the dead of night.”

 

Why would they care?”  Devlin asked.

 

They probably wouldn’t care, personally,” I said, “but the press would want to draw all kinds of conclusions.  Any attention is bad attention.  So, yeah, we can add that to the list.”

 

Devlin tilted his head and frowned slightly, but he nodded in acknowledgment of the point.

 

And,” I finished, “we’ve ultimately got to find something that points us toward the Mouse.  If it isn’t located on the server, then I don’t really know else I can do.”

 

A moment of heavy silence fell over the four of us.  In the distance, I could hear the faint strains of a conversation between Virginia and CJ. 

Well,” Mila said eventually.  She left a segment of pie on Michel’s plate, which he devoured.  “That just sounds like a regular Saturday night, to me.”

Chapter 36

I blinked, very hard, just to make sure that the scene in front of me wasn’t a creation of my overtaxed mind. Then, I did it again. Nothing changed.

The Virginia Ford of my memory had been a powerful, almost domineering figure. Her husband Ezekiel had been the public face of the family business, as was customary during the time and he’d possessed a world class instinct for infrastructure and bureaucracy that had served him well in the early days. But it had been her talent for cutthroat, back room deals and her steely personality that had allowed a family owned operation to blossom into the international corporation that Ford Enterprises had become.

I’d made something of myself, both legally and illegally, but it hardly compared to what my grandmother had done with nothing but grit and ruthless implacability. In a time of appalling, open racism, she and my grandfather had carved out a place for themselves and then, not content with that little bit of respite, they’d left a mark on the world that had outgrown any and all expectations. Appropriately, she’d always cast an impossibly long and deep shadow in my mind.

It was almost impossible, then, to draw a connection between the little old woman, complete with freshly baked pie, and the titan of industry I’d simultaneously feared and adored for most of my formative years.

Virginia,” I said slowly. Using her first name, instead of a nickname, had been a childish act of rebellion that had grown out of control over the years. “I, uh…didn’t know exactly when I’d be here either. Sorry for catching you off-guard, I guess?”

She waved a hand dismissively. “Oh, I’m not worried about that. I’m just happy to see you, is all! Did you and your friends already eat? I already fixed something for myself, but I’ve still got some leftovers in the fridge, if you’re hungry.”

We had something at the airport,” I said. Then, I paused and rewound the last few seconds of conversation. “You cooked? For yourself?”

Virginia shrugged. “It wasn’t anything fancy.”

No, I mean…what happened to your chef? What was his name again?”

You must thinking about old Bobby. Well, when he got an offer to go run his own restaurant, I figured it was about time for me to learn how to take care of myself. Can’t rely on other people to make dinner for me all the time, now can I?”

I didn’t turn to look at Devlin, but only through great and concerted effort.

If you don’t mind my asking,” Mila said, “what kind of pie is that?”

Virginia took in the four of us at a glance and only missed a single beat before answering. “According to the recipe, it’s supposed to be pecan. I’m still new to this, though, and I didn’t think to get all of the ingredients before I started and…well, I don’t know what you’d call this now.”

Mila’s eyes practically gleamed as she looked at the steaming pie. “I’ve never had pecan pie before. Not homemade, at least.”

Help yourself, then!” Virginia stepped away from the counter, whipping off the apron in a smooth motion. “I certainly couldn’t eat this all by myself.”

Mila took a half step forward, paused, and then shot me a question using only her eyes.

In a way, it was refreshing to have at least one steady principle to hold onto. Something sweet had been presented to the team and Mila, of course, wanted to get her hands on that item as soon as possible. The fact that said sweetness was being presented by my grandmother – or at least a woman masquerading as my grandmother, which I wasn’t quite ready to rule out yet – didn’t change the fundamental rules of the universe.

Go for it,” I said. “I think we’ve got some catching up to do anyway.”

Mila hesitated for another second, seemingly torn between her desire for sweets and some vestige of manners. The sweets won that battle.

With Mila expertly slicing the pie into individual slices, I turned my attention back to my grandmother. “So. This is new.”

You know what they say. Soon as you stop learnin’, you start dyin’ and I’ve got no intention of going anywhere just yet.” She fussed with her hair for a moment before she gestured toward the kitchen island and its array of stools. “But you’ve got to be tired! Come on, sit! Sit!”

Uh..sure,” I said. My mind still refused to accept this smiling woman as my grandmother but, for lack of some other explanation, I figured the best route was to simply go with it.

Michel and Devlin followed me over to the island. I sat between the two men and Virginia took a spot across from us. She looked from me to Devlin, then back at me, and finally at Michel.

So,” she said, affecting an air of overwhelming casualness, “are you going to introduce me?”

Oh!” This, at least, was territory I felt comfortable on. It was a shame that lying felt more natural than seeing Virginia engaged in domestic tasks. “This is…Michel. Michel, this is Virginia, my grandmother.”

For simplicity’s sake, I’d made sure that our fake identities shared our real first names.. It was easier on everyone and it cut down on the possible mistakes we might make, in the heat of the moment. If she were suitably motivated, I imagined that Virginia could have asked after flight records and received some information, but Michel wasn’t a terribly common name. Anything she found, I could easily knock down or argue away. Although it did mean I’d have to falsify some marriage records later. Maybe even Photoshop a few wedding photos, in case she asked to see them.

That was probably more work than would actually be necessary, though. It wasn’t as though she’d ever shown an outsized interest in my personal life, outside of the occasional chastisement and –

You must be the husband I’ve heard so little about!”

Virginia practically preened as she gave Michel the familial once-over. Luckily, he was dressed in one of the nicer outfits we’d managed to hold onto since London: a polo shirt, fitted to display his broad shoulders and upper arms, nice jeans, and a pair of plain black sneakers. I hadn’t planned this particular encounter, but it was good to learn that every new development wasn’t going to pan out badly for the team.

Yes ma’am,” Michel answered, after a beat of awkward silence. His hesitant answer actually seemed to work well. He wasn’t a shy person, by any means, which meant he’d elected to play the part of my husband that way on purpose. Virginia relaxed her gaze slightly, mollified by something she saw in his bearing, and he reacted to that by leaning further into the persona. “And you must be the grandmother she has talked so much about.”

Oh? Well, what kind of things has she been saying?”

Just that you are one of the most shrewd businesswomen she has ever known,” Michel said. I could have sworn his accent was just a hair thicker than normal. “But she did not mention anything about you being an amazing boulanger, as well.”

Virginia swatted at the air. “I just dabble, from time to time. What else is an old woman to do with her free time? My two grandchildren never come to visit and it’s almost impossible to even get them on the phone these days.”

But I do not see any old women here.”

You are a charmer, aren’t you?” Virginia winked at me. “I can see why you picked this one.”

I didn’t look at Devlin, because I didn’t have to. I could literally feel his teeth gritting together without turning my head even the slightest fraction of an inch. It sent a wave of nervous tension running all the way up my spine.

Surprisingly, Virginia didn’t notice how I sat up straighter or catch the minute flinch that I couldn’t quite contain. She just barreled on, oblivious to the tension that radiated from Devlin. “And your other friends?” She asked. “Aren’t you going to introduce them, too?”

Mila picked that moment to return, having contrived a way to carry five pie plates with only two arms. She laid the plates down on the island, one in front of each of us, before she took a spot to the left of Michel. “Emilia,” she said and extended a hand.

Virginia took the hand and shook without missing a beat. “And how do you know my granddaughter, Emilia?”

Instead of answering, Mila looked at me. I took the cue. “You know how mom and dad have always been after me to get some protection?”

Well, as long as you’re going to insist on traveling all over the world, it only seemed reasonable.”

I tilted my head in Mila’s direction. “Emilia’s my protection.”

That actually caused a visible reaction in Virginia’s expression. A flash of concern, accompanied by a brief but intense narrowing of her eyes, passed over her face. It was gone so quickly that I might have missed it, were it not for my heightened state of paranoia.

Is everything okay?” Virginia asked.

I waved away her concern. “Everything’s fine. But I’ve been overseas handling some personal business and I finally decided that Mom and Dad might have a point. Nothing to worry about.”

I kept a question – “Since when have you been worried about me?” – to myself.

Virginia pursed her lips and sucked her teeth. “If that’s what you think,” she said slowly. With a visible effort, she turned her smile back on and pointed it in Devlin’s direction. “And you?”

A lump of ice formed in my gut as I followed her gaze toward Devlin. Our conversation in the car had ended abruptly, before we’d had a chance to finalize any plans. I was prepared to follow whatever story he came up, within reason, but I would have felt a lot less anxious if I had even the slightest idea what that story might be.

No matter what our personal issues might be, I should have known better than to doubt Devlin. He was a professional, through and through, and he’d have thrown himself onto hot glass before willfully tanking even the most mundane job. With the stakes as high as they were – the Lady prodding us forward with a velvet glove, while the Magi loomed ahead with mailed fists – it was too ridiculous to even consider.

Without any prep time, Devlin met my grandmother’s smile with a sly one of his own and crafted a character out of thin air. He applied just a touch of the Irish accent he’d forcibly acquired over the years, as well as a bit of the old swagger he’d used at our first meeting. The effect was subtle, but no less effective for its subtlety. With just those two light adjustments, he made himself appear more approachable and friendly. He had also, I realized a moment later, elected to use the accent as a mirror for my grandmother’s own delicate Southern twang. She would probably see a kindred spirit in him, now: someone else who had clung to their heritage, in defiance of the world around them.

It would have been an impressive transformation, even if he’d had a few hours to look into her past and create some sort of psychological profile. Of course, considering the woman in front of us bore little resemblance to the one I’d known growing up, the outcome of that research likely wouldn’t have hit the mark. Instead, he’d relied entirely on his intuition and pulled something together on the fly, based solely on the last few minutes of conversation.

Name’s Devlin,” he said cheerfully. “Devlin Murphy. Pleasure to meet you, ma’am.”

The pleasure’s all mine,” Virginia replied. “What brings you out to Georgia, Mister Murphy?”

My da’s Mister Murphy,” Devlin said. I couldn’t have sworn to the subtle twitch at one of corner of his eye. “Everybody just calls me Devlin.”

Well, then, Devlin. How do you know my Sarah?”

Devlin sampled the pecan pie and leaned back in his chair. “If I told you it was so that I could have a piece of this delicious pie, would you think I was laying it on too thick?”

Virginia giggled. She actually giggled. “I’d think you were trying to avoid my question with flattery.”

Is it working?”

You aren’t the first man who’s tried to charm his way around an answer,” Virginia said. “But I admit you are the most brazen about it.”

Devlin took another bite of pie, shrugging one shoulder while he chewed. “It was worth a try. I’m not trying to keep anything secret, you understand; it’s just that I’ve never liked to mix business with pleasure. And I’m enjoying watching this reunion. Figured we could talk about why I’m here when we were all done here.”

A familiar light came into Virginia’s eyes; it was the first glimpse of the grandmother I’d known. “Business? Well, now I’m interested.”

Nothing interesting,” Devlin said. “Just a bit of art acquisition for one of my clients. She’s a little concerned about some, uh…other interested parties getting their hands on her favorite pieces, so she sent me out here to help facilitate the transfer.”

You deal in art?”

Devlin winked at her. “Buying, selling, trading…you name it, I do it. Everybody’s got to have a job.”

That’s true enough,” Virginia said. “But what does that have to do with Sarah?”

Didn’t you know? When it comes to art, your Sarah’s the best in the world. As soon as my client let me know what she was after, I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d want working with me.”

The fabricated story he wove was a little too close to the truth for my taste, but I trusted him to know where the line was. His praise of me, however, came as a welcome surprise. The lump of ice in my stomach melted slightly.

Shame she’s so in demand,” Devlin continued. “It’s only a matter of time before she gets a better offer, so I thought it best we get as much done as we can before she leaves.”

The ice returned, colder and larger than before. That wasn’t even subtext, so much as blatant innuendo. Even Mila looked up sharply from her pie for an instant.

Virginia was so focused on Devlin that she didn’t notice the change in atmosphere. “Well, I never knew she had those kinds of interests,” she said, “but I’m happy to hear she’s doing something she enjoys. What’s that got to do with Georgia, though?”

I spoke before Devlin could. I didn’t exactly know what words would come out of my mouth, but I was certain that I didn’t want to hear whatever thinly veiled criticisms he could come up with. “It’s a little technical,” I said, “but I needed to borrow your access card for the office. There are some files on the Ford servers that might point us toward the, uh, artwork we’re looking for.”

Virginia frowned. “The office? You mean, at the Atlanta branch?”

Unless there’s another one that I don’t know about.”

Sarah, I haven’t gone to the office in years,” Virginia said. “I could get you in to the building, but I don’t even have access to those systems anymore.”

I stared at her for several long seconds. “What?”

Virginia took a bite of her own pie and grimaced slightly. “Too much nutmeg, I think. Anyway, Sarah, I’m almost ninety years old. I couldn’t keep up with the demands of the business at my age. If I hadn’t given my position to some new hotshot, the board probably would have forced me out.”

The dreams of an easy couple of days back in Georgia evaporated as she spoke. I certainly didn’t have access to the corporate system. I could have arranged for it, given a few days to contact my parents, but there was every possibility that using official channels would raise too many flags. If Caelum was watching for anything unusual, surely the return of a wayward daughter seeking access to a specific server would be all he needed to discover my identity. From there, it wouldn’t be too difficult to run down Michel, Mila, and Devlin.

No, if I couldn’t use my grandmother’s card to gain entry into the network so that I could trawl for information on the server, that meant we’d have to go about this the hard way.

Of course.

Chapter 35

It said something about my family that my parents considered the Atlanta home to be a bit on the small side. Located in the prestigious Buckhead district and valued at just under ten million dollars, my grandmother’s prestigious Tudor estate had been one of the first major real estate acquisitions she and her late husband had made, when their business started taking off. In the years since – hell, even at the time when they’d made the purchase – my grandparents had amassed enough wealth to move anywhere they wanted, but they’d made a conscious decision to purchase a mansion in the same state where they’d been the victims of denigration and discrimination for decades prior. That was their own little rebellion: an act of targeted pettiness, in the form of an extravagantly over-sized home for two people. That way, they could never forget where they’d come from and the community wouldn’t be able to forget about them.

I imagined that my grandmother had continued living in the mansion because, no matter how old or successful she became, that little kernel of pettiness still defined a large portion of her being. At least, if the general behavior of the rest of my family was any indication, that is.

We went through the initial security checkpoint with only a little bit of fuss. In America, and in Georgia specifically, I had a very recognizable face. There were new hires semi-regularly, but the neighborhood security company had a long institutional memory. One of the two guards at the guardhouse recognized me after a moment, expressed a vague sort of pleasure at my arrival, and then waved us through. A similar process took place at the second guard house. It wasn’t until we reached the house itself, newly festooned with a guard house at the end of the driveway, that we met our first real obstacle.

I didn’t recognize either of the guards stationed there. The older of the two leveraged himself up from a seated position and lazily walked over to the front of the car. The driver gestured at the backseat, where I sat with the rest of my team, and the guard altered his angle so that he reached us just as our window disappeared from sight.

Afternoon,” he said. He tipped his hat at us and I caught the initials “CJ” monogrammed in stark white lettering over the otherwise plain black surface. I mentally attached the name to the man until further notice.

No one in the car even bothered to pretend that I wasn’t going to be charged with the lion’s share of initial communication. Michel tried to blend in with the black leather of the car’s interior. Mila somehow managed to appear both bored and tense. One hand toyed with the seatbelt latch which, as it turned out, happened to be perilously close to a spot on her hip where I was pretty sure she’d managed to hide a knife of some sort.

Devlin still wasn’t looking directly at me. I thought about waiting for him to take the lead and, as quickly as the idea occurred to me, decided that this wasn’t the time to test him. His mood was unfamiliar and, as a direct result of that unfamiliarity, potentially very dangerous. Better to leave him alone until we could find the time to hash out whatever black cloud had descended over him.

Afternoon to you, too,” I said, focusing my attention on the guard CJ and trying to put Devlin out of my mind for the moment.

Names?”

I sighed. “Sarah Ford. I’m her granddaughter.”

Sarah Ford? The Sarah Ford?” He whistled. “Why, you’re something of a celebrity around here, you know that?”

I did not know that, and I doubted the truth of the statement, but I just smiled blandly and nodded instead of challenging him on it. “Oh? I just try to keep to myself mostly.”

Well, that’s why you’re a celebrity!” CJ motioned for his partner to approach the vehicle. “This is who Miss Ford’s always talking about!”

My eyebrows shot up. “She’s what, now?”

CJ didn’t notice my tone. “Must be at least once a day, maybe more, that she’s out here talking about her youngest granddaughter. That sound about right?”

The question was directed at the younger of the two guards. The boy, who could only just barely be old enough to drink, nodded eagerly. “Probably more than that, I’d say.”

Well, holidays hardly count, do they?”

The boy nodded his assent, but didn’t add anything further to the conversation.

I wasn’t sure what, exactly, I should be focused on. On the one hand, the guards didn’t seem to have any interest in blocking my entrance into the Ford estate. That was good; in the fever pitch of activity since London, it was entirely possible that I’d actually lost any legitimate form of identification. I could have proven my claim, but that would have taken time.

On the other hand, however, the scenario that the two guards were painting clashed violently with my understanding of the eminent Virginia Ford. As I remembered it, my grandmother didn’t just disdain personal connections with the hired security; she actively worked to avoid situations where someone might feel the urge to strike up a conversation. She’d explained it as a desire to keep lines of employer/employee relationships perfectly clear and, after a fashion, I understood her point. Working so closely with the same types of people who would have been only too happy to whisper slurs behind her back would necessitate a certain heavy hand when it came to discipline and chains of command.

But that had been years ago. Decades, even. The Ford family had amassed enough wealth and political power in the last two generations to ensure that no one with an internet connection and even the thinnest margin of common sense would dare to insult even the least visible of us. At the time of that conversation, my grandmother had already been labeled as one of the country’s foremost rising stars of industry. We hadn’t quite been a household name yet, but we’d been close. So, at the time, I’d assumed that there was some other reason for the forced distance she maintained from her employees and put it out of my mind.

She was apparently talking to the security guards now, though? And not just talking to them, but sharing personal details about my life?

In virtually any other situation, I would have dropped everything else just to focus on that new development. Something must have gone terribly, terribly wrong to affect that kind of change in a woman who prided herself on being utterly intractable. But this wasn’t any other situation and I couldn’t afford to split my attention between the problem of the Mouse and the mystery of new familial developments.

So, instead of asking any of the dozen questions that sprang to mind, I gave CJ and his cohort a sunny smile and made a series of wordless, yet generally positive, noises. He wasn’t actually looking for affirmation, after all. He just wanted someone to acknowledge that they’d heard him, that he wasn’t being ignored, and then he’d be content.

He proved my assessment correct only a heartbeat later. “Well,” CJ said, “I’d have to blind not to see the resemblance between the two of you. Is she expecting you?”

I shook my head. “I tried to tell her that I was coming into town, but I’m not sure if she got the message.”

Did you call her personal line?”

The business number,” I said. “Why?”

Well, she hasn’t been at the office in…what, a week?”

Two weeks,” CJ’s partner said.

He had already returned to his chair and was browsing through something on his phone. Judging from his demeanor and the speed with which his fingers tapped the screen, I assumed he was playing some sort of game. From that, I guessed that my grandmother wasn’t receiving an excessive amount of visitors. It also explained why CJ had opened up with so much excessive familiarity. He was bored. They both were.

I wondered if that was something I could use. People weren’t really my area of expertise, but it would have been impossible to spend so much time around Devlin without picking up at least a few secrets about manipulation and the relative value of bystanders who could prove useful at a critical point. I filed the idea away.

She hasn’t been at the office in two weeks?” I asked.

She hasn’t been at the office in…God, I don’t even know how long,” CJ said. “But she makes a point to check the voicemail every couple of weeks, just to make sure she isn’t missing anything.”

My grandmother,” I said, deliberately punctuating the thought with an audible period. “She isn’t going into the office anymore?”

CJ shrugged. “Not since I started working here,” he said, “and I’ve been here for a while. One second, Sarah; let me see if she’s feeling well enough for visitors. Not that she won’t be excited to hear from you, but…well, you understand.”

I nodded to show that I did. CJ stepped into the guard house and, following a brief but fervent search through a series of drawers, began speaking into a handheld microphone.

Well, that’s strange,” I muttered to myself.

What is?” Michel asked.

Just this whole vibe,” I said. “Grandma hates security. So why would she bother hiring guards to protect her driveway, specifically? And why would she be talking to them about me?”

Mila shifted in her seat. Sam’s carrying case sat on the seat next to her and she idly scratched the top of the case as if the cat inside could feel her fingers through the property of transference. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

The two of us were never close enough for the whole ‘sharing childhood stories with strangers’ thing,” I said. “And I can’t imagine her ever deciding that she wanted to take a walk down memory lane, especially not with the help.”

Mila raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.

It only took me a second or two to realize what I’d said. Immediately, I kicked myself internally. “You know that’s not what I meant, Mila.”

I know that,” she said. “But why’d you say it?”

I sighed. “It’s this place. Just something about being here makes me feel like I’m…I don’t know, like I’m a kid again.”

So you didn’t talk to the help when you were a kid?”

Her question was made worse by that maddening calm delivery. There wasn’t any condemnation or judgment in her voice; just the question, asked without any particular emotional investment. I should have grown used to that, coming from Mila, but her tone struck an uncomfortably familiar note with Devlin’s complete lack of interaction at the moment, so it stung a lot more than I’d expected.

This is what she wanted me to be like,” I said, “and I just wanted her to be happy with me. So, yes and no. Does that make any sense?”

Mila considered the question for a few seconds longer than it really warranted before she shrugged one shoulder with elaborate, near-perfect carelessness. “If you say so.”

Sometimes,” Michel said, “people change. Could that have happened?”

He was trying to change the subject. That much was obvious. The fact that he’d been blatantly obvious about it didn’t detract from the effectiveness of the ploy. Obviously he’d been paying attention to Devlin’s sporadic lessons about conversation and various verbal tricks, even if he hadn’t quite grasped the art of delicacy yet.

I appreciated the effort, more than I could possibly have explained in the confines of the car. Mila was frightening, as a matter of course, but I didn’t think for an instant that she’d actually turn her capacity for violence against me. Her cool judgment, however, was a different matter entirely.

What do you mean?” I asked.

My family was a…different matter,” Michel said, “but I knew people in Paris whose family grew to accept them as they aged. Could that explain what has happened with your grandmother?”

I snorted. “When hell freezes over, maybe. She must be playing at something. That’s just who she is.”

Maybe she didn’t change,” Devlin said, in a quiet voice. “Maybe there was just more happening beneath the surface that you didn’t know about.”

Silence filled the car’s interior. Even Mila seemed uncomfortable and I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that she wasn’t physically capable of that emotion.

What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked him. Anger slipped into my voice before I could stop it.

Exactly what I said. It’s been years since you’ve seen her and you obviously had your own assumptions about the kind of person she was. You might have clouded your own judgment.” He shrugged. “It happens.”

I knew he was being disingenuous. I just knew it. But he’d phrased his point in a way that made it impossible to outright disagree.

In lieu of that, I drew in a breath to outright ask him what I’d done to piss him off. CJ returned at that exact moment, forestalling any further discussion.

She’s in the kitchen,” he said. As he spoke, his younger cohort pressed a button and the steel gate began to slowly climb out of the way of our vehicle. “Miss Ford asks if you remember where that is?”

I remember where the kitchen is,” I said.

The brief hint of animosity from Devlin – if that was even the right word – had soured my mood and I spoke the words through lightly gritted teeth. Besides, my grandmother’s request practically reeked of a passive aggressive jab at my culinary weaknesses. Which seemed distinctly unfair, since I couldn’t remember a time where she’d entered the kitchen to do anything other than berate more qualified chefs for their perceived failings.

Where CJ had missed my skepticism before, he didn’t miss the scarcely contained anger behind my wintry, painted-on smile.

Ah,” he said. He swallowed nervously before he continued. “Well, alright then, ma’am. You have a good day, alright?”

He returned to the guard house, just as the gate reached its highest point. Our driver coaxed the vehicle back into motion and we covered the short distance from the guard house to the front door. We exited the vehicle and made our farewells with the customary exchange of pleasantries and folded bills of American currency. Devlin helped Mila to unload our luggage. I suspected that he’d chosen that task because it afforded him a measure of distance from me, but I couldn’t very well ask him that without coming off as impossibly arrogant.

I had to repeat that reasoning to myself two or three times before it sank in.

The four of us managed to get the bulk of our luggage inside the house. We left the miniature mountain of clothing and whatever gear we’d managed to sneak onto the plane by the door. Then, the other three followed me through the maze of the mansion’s downstairs rooms. I let memory guide me through the halls.

Drifting off into thoughts of my past helped to insulate me from my mounting concern about Devlin. The two sentences he’d spoken in the car hadn’t been openly hostile, but I couldn’t imagine there was much distance from where he was to the point where we were fighting in front of Mila and Michel. Which didn’t actually concern me, all that much, except for the not-insignificant possibility that we wouldn’t fight about whatever was bothering him. If he allowed it to fester, it would poison our well of teamwork, with potentially catastrophic results.

I resolved to pick a fight with him at the first opportunity, if he didn’t unburden himself before then. It would be better to lose a few hours in an explosive blowout, rather than to miss a vital cue because of some poorly suppressed emotions. It was exactly the sort of cold, emotional logic that he would have suggested, if he were talking to me.

The kitchen was at the back of the first floor. As we drew closer, the scent of some sort of pastry began to find its way into my nose. It didn’t smell quite as good as some of the professional confectioneries we’d been partaking of, courtesy of Mila’s sweet tooth, but it certainly didn’t smell bad.

When I entered the kitchen, I expected to find a new chef, to go with the new security guards outside. Instead, I was met with the image of my grandmother in a faded apron, removing a pie from the oven. She wore mismatched mitts and her hair, which I’d never seen outside of a tight bun atop her head, was tied back in a loose ponytail. She placed the pastry – it looked like a pie, but I wasn’t really sure I could trust my eyes at the moment – on the counter before she noticed the four of us standing in the doorway.

A smile lit up her face, like someone had plugged her into a wall outlet. “Sarah! I didn’t think you’d be here until much later! I was hoping to surprise you, but it took a little longer to make this than the recipe said.”

I blinked, partly to fix the image of my grandmother performing domestic tasks with her own hands and partly to ensure that I wasn’t hallucinating the scene entirely. The air conditioning unit kicked on and, from my position directly beneath a vent, the temperature dropped noticeably.

It wasn’t quite hell freezing over, I thought, but it was probably close enough for government work.

Chapter 34

t was blisteringly hot outside of the airport, of course. No matter how much time I spent away from Georgia, some things never changed. The heat clung to my skin, so thick with humidity that I could practically drink it in. My hair was already in dire need of professional attention; stepping out in the intense humidity of late summer weather only exacerbated that problem. I could practically feel the Afro frizzing into existence on the top of my head, in complete defiance of my greatest efforts to tame my curls. The distance between the relative safety of the airport terminal and the air conditioned interior of the oversized SUV I’d rented for the next few hours comprised all of fifteen feet, but I felt each and every one of those feet as the damage accumulated.

Jesus,” Devlin breathed as he settled into a seat so soft that it threatened to swallow him whole. “How is this even hotter than literal Africa?”

Humidity,” I said. With an effort, I managed to keep myself from trying to wring the moisture from my hair. “It isn’t hotter, so much as it’s damper.”

Is there any functional difference between heat and humidity?”

It was a question I’d considered before, so my answer came out a little sharper and immediate than Devlin could possibly have expected. “There’s basically nothing you can do to deal better with humidity, outside of simply staying indoors.”

We should do that,” he said. “That sounds like a great idea. We’re going to do that, right?”

I favored him with a twisted smile and an elevated eyebrow. “Don’t be a baby, Dev. It’s hot. You’ll survive.”

Mila cleared her throat. “I’m gonna go ahead and agree with him on this one, actually.”

You too?”

She shrugged. “If I wanted to go swimming, I’d find a pool.”

Internally, I agreed with her, but I kept that thought to myself. “Babies,” I said, “the lot of you.”

Our driver didn’t involve himself in the discussion, except to issue a vaguely affirmative grunt. He wore a full black suit, complete with an old-style cap. I couldn’t imagine how uncomfortable he must be in the sweltering temperature. He wasn’t as talkative or as insightful as the driver I’d used in San Francisco, but years spent in the South during the hottest months of the year engendered a deep sympathy for the man’s plight. I resolved to tip him extravagantly after he dropped us off. It wasn’t really my money, after all.

I didn’t speak any of those thoughts out loud, though. I gave the driver the address and – following a few hilarious seconds where he tried to imagine a world where this ragtag group of individuals belonged anywhere near Ford, Inc. – he started the vehicle and started off in that direction. As a matter of course, he raised the screen that was supposed to offer us a measure of privacy.

Those don’t work,” I said, pointing at the black screen as it inched shut. “Just in case you didn’t know.”

I’d sort of figured that out,” Devlin said.

What is the point, then?” Michel asked.

I tilted my head to one side, then the other. “Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe just the illusion of privacy is enough for most people? It isn’t like the drivers care all that much about the kind of things we could talk about.”

The words were spoken in an easy going manner, so casually that it almost hurt to force down my anxiety. There was an incredible amount of subtext underneath what I’d said, though. There was a not-insignificant possibility that we’d grown a little too used to discussing our business in the open since London. Part of that came from a tendency to only spend serious amounts of time around each other; even more came from the fact that we often found ourselves working in countries where the average citizen didn’t speak English in the first place. But, now that we were back in the States, we couldn’t rely on the same sort of precautions.

Devlin glanced at the divider – as did Mila and Michel, an instant later – and nodded. “Good to know.”

So.” I laced my fingers together so that I could crack all of the knuckles at once. “I think it’ll probably be for the best if you let me do all the talking when we get to see my grandmother.”

It’s your show,” Devlin said. “We’ll just follow your lead.”

Good.”

I nodded, hoping that the gesture hid my mounting discomfort. Part of that unease came from the impending meeting with Dame Ford; the rest, I suspected, had something to do with the unfamiliar burden of leading our little collective. In all the ways that mattered, Devlin and I shared leadership, switching off as necessary. However, in a purely symbolic fashion, he’d been the…well, the standard-bearer for our group. I preferred to work in the background, unseen and unnoticed, and his personality lent itself more easily to welding together disparate goals into a cohesive whole.

I wasn’t going to give breath to any of those thoughts, of course. Confidence was essential in these matters; the fact that I would soon be serving as the de facto face of the team in front of my domineering grandmother only meant that I had to lean even further into the facade of self-assurance.

Devlin gave me a strange look and tilted his head minutely to one side. Immediately, I turned my attention to the window and stared out into Atlanta’s streets. A moment after that, I realized that he could read my abrupt shift in focus as easily as any expression that might have slipped through my guard. If I continued looking out of the window, he’d know for certain that something was bothering me. If I made eye contact in an effort to portray a calm demeanor, though, there was every possibility that he’d be able to figure out exactly what was bothering me.

It was the kind of thing I’d struggled to get used to, back when we’d first started working together. I decided to fall back on old habits; specifically, I tried my very best to ignore the sensation of his eyes on me until he took the hint and found something else to focus on.

It only took him about thirty seconds to either give up or to discover whatever answer he was searching my bearing for. “So,” he said, “here’s a question.”

I’m listening,” I said, without turning my head.

Equipment is still a problem, isn’t it? I mean…sure, we managed to rescue that, uh, startup company at our last stop, but that didn’t give us what we were looking for.”

Mila made a muffled noise. I flicked my eyes in her direction, just as she popped another candied nut into her mouth. “Don’t look at me,” she said, around the food. “I’m just along for the ride, apparently.”

I rolled my eyes at her before, cautiously, giving Devlin my full attention. He was focused intently one, but not in the way that represented one of his silent examinations. I could deal with that.

He’d made a good point, too. I was operating with the bare minimum, technologically speaking, and our time in Tangiers hadn’t yielded any tangible hardware that I could use. There might be some computer stores in the area that I could visit, maybe even some items I could use to shore up weak points in my electronic arsenal, but I’d need top of the line gear if Caelum was on the field. Generally speaking, I’d have to special order the components for that kind of a system; special orders, of course, took time that we didn’t have to spare.

We’ll probably have to scavenge,” I said.

Again?” Devlin asked.

I shrugged. “On the bright side, there’s a much higher probability that we won’t have to deal with, uh…” My train of thought momentarily derailed as I tried to think of an appropriate metaphor.

Rival business interests?” Michel suggested.

I favored him with a smile and a slight incline of my head. “Let’s go with that, sure. This is already equipment that we own – or that I own, in a roundabout way – so it’ll just be like shopping.”

And that’s going to be good enough?”

In the limited amount of time we have available before we reach a certain deadline?” I lifted my hands, palms facing the ceiling. “I’ll just have to make do with whatever we can find.”

Mila swallowed her mouthful of candy, started to say something, but stopped herself with a quick glance at the privacy screen.

If we find ourselves needing your services,” I said, putting a bit more emphasis on the word than necessary, “then we’ve already found ourselves in way too deep. When we’re finished here, though, we can definitely figure out a way to resupply you. There’s just not anyway to justify that now.”

Actually,” Michel said slowly. He stopped talking when three pairs of eyes swung in his direction. Devlin and I motioned for him to continue, at the same time, and Michel took some measure of encouragement from the dual motions. “Actually, your family’s business is very famous in America, no?”

I wouldn’t say famous,” I replied, “but the family is pretty well-known. Notable, maybe. Why?”

Would it be uncommon for someone of your notability to have personal protection?”

I stared at him for a few seconds, silently castigating myself for overlooking the obvious cover for Mila. My parents had tried to saddle me with a bodyguard for years, starting in a particularly tumultuous couple of months spent in Mexico, and they’d never really given up on the idea. My grandmother hadn’t necessarily agreed, but her argument had been against leaving the country at all. If Mila posed as my own security – which, well, she was, but not from the forces that my grandmother would assume were threats – she wouldn’t have to play any other role and risk inciting an old black woman’s curiosity.

Mila’s eyes lit up and I added a second thing to the ‘pro’ category: she’d get to carry a gun.

That is not a bad point, Michel,” I said. “And I’m guessing you’re okay playing yourself, Mila?”

She considered the bag of candied nuts for a few seconds before she reluctantly returned it to her luggage. “I’ve been doing it this long,” she said. “I figure another day or two shouldn’t be too much trouble.”

That’s the two of you sorted out,” Devlin said. “What about Michel? Did you have a role for him in mind?”

If we are going with the simplest solutions,” Michel said, “then I could simply be her driver. It is what I am, after all.”

And I’ll play your husband,” Devlin said. “If that’s okay with you, I mean.”

As soon as he spoke the words, I remembered a few glaring deceptions I’d fed to my family and the full breadth of information I’d withheld from them. I cringed, so violently that I didn’t even bother to hide it.

Or not,” Devlin said. He tried to keep his voice light, but there was a beat of real pain hidden underneath the words. “We can come up with something else. I didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal. People work with their exes all of the time, so long as they can keep things amicable.”

It’s not that.”

Then what?”

I swallowed nervously. This wasn’t going to be easy for either one of us. Devlin wouldn’t appreciate our past being dragged out in front of God and everybody; I wasn’t going to enjoy being the one responsible for the dragging.

There are a few things I might not have told my parents,” I said, dreading each word but pushing forward nonetheless. “First, you’ve got to understand that they are very traditional. They were willing to accept that I got married without inviting them to the ceremony, but just barely.”

Devlin lifted one eyebrow, just a fraction of an inch. “Okay,” he said, “but that isn’t telling us what things you didn’t tell them.”

Well, they know that I got married,” I said. “They might not know that I got divorced.”

Silence.

They just don’t believe in divorce,” I said quickly. The words rushed out of my mouth, tumbling into and over each other as I rushed to spit them out as quickly as possible. “So it was easier to just…you know, distance myself and hope that they just forgot about it. If they don’t know that I’m not married anymore, then my grandmother certainly won’t know. Or she shouldn’t, at least.”

So you’ll have to play the married couple again,” Mila said. Her expression was slightly less stoic than normal and it seemed like she was fighting down a smirk. “That shouldn’t be too hard, considering how chummy the two of you can get when you’re on the job.”

Yeah…” I drew the syllable out, as if I could fill the remaining time between where we were and my grandmother’s house without saying anything else. I made it a good ten seconds before capitulating. “Yeah, that’s not the only thing I kept from them.”

Devlin was good at reading people. He was exemplary, when the mood and necessity struck him at the same time. I could almost see the wheels in his head spinning as he crunched through the available information, seeking a solution that would explain my reluctance to say anything further. I could practically hear the gears grinding, and I knew that he’d never in a million years guess correctly.

You know how I said they’re traditional?”

It was literally a second ago, Sarah,” Devlin said. “Yes, we all remember it.”

Yeah. Well. They’ve got really specific ideas about relationships, too. You’ve got to understand, my grandparents grew up in the South and it was just easier to -”

No,” Michel said, breathlessly. “You are joking.”

He would be the first one in the vehicle to understand. Michel had experience keeping things from his father – in his case, the somewhat flexible relationship his sexual appetites had with gender – and he had something in common with me that neither Mila nor Devlin could lay claim to.

What are you talking about…” Devlin trailed off as he connected the dots. Michel’s reaction, my bone-deep unease with this entire conversation, and the reference to the South’s less-than-stellar racial history.

I might not have told them you were white,” I said. Hearing those words, in my own voice, felt like a knife through the heart.

I wasn’t sure how Devlin would react, but placid equanimity hadn’t made the list of possibilities. “Because they’re traditional,” he said.

I nodded.

Your sister,” Devlin said, in a slightly higher volume and through gritted teeth, “is gay, Sarah. But that was something she shared with your ‘traditional’ parents. And you didn’t want to tell them that I wasn’t black?”

Open anger would have been preferable. Devlin – the Devlin I’d married, not the one who emerged when the moment called for cold, implacable decisions – was an emotional person, more likely to let his emotions briefly flare out of control, rather than suppress them. But he was certainly suppressing them now. As I watched, he visibly smoothed his expression out into a mask of absolute neutrality.

The air in the car had become stifling hot. I started to say something, failed to find anything that could possibly fill the space, and prayed that either Michel or Mila would say something instead. They exchanged a look with each other and then, with overwhelming care, avoided looking at either Devlin or me.

Well,” Devlin said, long after the tension had reached a breaking point. “Michel can play your husband. I can…be the driver, I guess. We’ll figure something out.”

He turned his head and looked out of his own window, clearly done with the conversation.

Devlin, you don’t…look, it’s my family.” I tried to convey an entire lifetime of parental expectations with just my voice. “What else could I have done?”

Devlin said nothing. I considered trying again, maybe even reaching out a hand to get his attention, but the possibility of a more severe rejection kept my hands at my side. I could only hope that his mood would break and I’d have a chance to actually explain myself.

It didn’t. Devlin stayed like that until we reached the Ford estate, silent, stern, and filled with some emotion that I couldn’t even guess at. For my part, all I could feel was a deep, deep shame.

Chapter 33

After we’d devoured the vast majority of food on our table, I excused myself from the table and purchased a burner phone from a nearby cart. From sheer paranoia, I took extra care to survey the surrounding streams of people for any bright red hair, but the Lady wasn’t anywhere that I could see. Of course, she could easily have dyed her hair black or blonde in order to hide herself better, but some instinct said that she wouldn’t go to any such lengths. It wasn’t like her hair was nondescript and she’d kept it the same color for the past six months. Why change things up now?

The first call I made was to a car service I remembered from the good old days. They’d been discreet and reliable before I’d moved to San Francisco and their branch office in that city had proved themselves similar in quality. The fact that I’d already established a line of credit with them, under a false name, made the decision of which service to use even easier. It wouldn’t have taken much effort to set up another bank account and to protect it via the usual means, but it would have taken time, and I didn’t have any of that to spare.

With that taken care of, I hesitated before making the second call. For all of my well-founded issues and deep-seated issues, my grandmother still frightened me. The reaction was instinctual, not logical, and the tendrils of that childish fear were already twining themselves around my internal organs. In my youth, my grandmother had been an impossibly powerful figure: commanding, stern, endlessly judgmental. Her overbearing presence might have had a different effect on me, had my actual parents been around to moderate, but they’d spent most of my formative years involved in business at one corner of the earth or another. So, I’d grown up with the matriarch of the Ford family and the damage that upbringing had caused were in danger of rearing their ugly heads.

I took a deep breath, glanced up at the table for strength, and then dialed the appropriate digits from memory before I could talk myself out of it. Each ring from the speaker ratcheted up the cold feeling in my gut until – somewhat anticlimactically – I reached her voicemail.

You’ve reached the cellular phone of Missus Virginia Ford, my grandmother’s voice said in a steady serious voice. I’m unable to take your phone call at the moment. Please leave a message after the beep and have a blessed day.

Her words possessed all of the smooth consonants and rounded sounds that I’d grown accustomed to in my youth. In all honesty, her accent should have melted away on its own, through sheer proximity to the upper crust. The twang in her words was a remnant of her humble beginnings, though, and I suspected that she’d taken special effort to hold onto it. Speaking with someone who sounded like a backwater yokel, but who acted like the most cutthroat businessman this side of Miranda Priestly, was certain to throw her rivals off of their game. And it would have the added benefit of allowing her to stay connected to her roots.

I waited for the beep before speaking quickly into the phone. “Grandmother,” I said, “I just touched down. I’m still hoping to catch up with you. Since you’re not answering, I can only assume you’re at the office. I’ll stop by and see you there.”

The appropriate way to end a phone call with a loved one was ‘I love you.’ I knew that, obviously. It was common knowledge. But I just couldn’t force myself to speak those words, either because I didn’t quite believe it or because I wasn’t willing to play that card under false pretenses. Either way, I needed to think of something else to say, lest the voice message end up sounding even more awkward than phone messages inevitably did.

I miss you,” I said after a heartbeat of thought. That was kind of true. It was true enough, at any rate. “Talk to you later.”

I broke the connection and looked at the phone for a good fifteen seconds. Then, content in the knowledge that nothing untoward would be happening in the immediate future, I walked back over to join the team.

How’d it go?” Devlin asked, before I’d had an opportunity to get comfortable.

I ignored the question until I was appropriately settled. One corner of his mouth twitched down in the beginning of a frown, but he wisely decided to keep his displeasure to himself. When I was nestled as comfortably in the food court chair as I could reasonably hope to be, I retrieved my nearly empty cup of Diet Coke and sipped at it.

It didn’t go badly,” I said, just before he exploded with anticipation. “I don’t think she’s home right now, which works out in our favor.”

Will she think something’s going on if you just stop by the office?”

I shook my head. “Why would she? I have an official stake in the office, just like the rest of my family. Just because I don’t show up in person to handle things doesn’t change that fact.”

I know that,” Devlin said. He sounded a touch more waspish than necessary, which was probably due to my pointless trolling of him only moments before. His minor irritation probably shouldn’t have been amusing to me, but it was. “But flying in from wherever she thinks you were just to go the office would be strange. It might be the kind of thing that would put her on edge, even if she doesn’t have the necessary information to come to the right conclusion.”

I thought about that for a few seconds. “She probably won’t even notice me,” I said finally. “She was never terribly concerned with me as a person, even when she was ostensibly in charge of my development. Now that I’m an adult, she’ll probably just pat me on the head and go back to orchestrating corporate takeovers or breaking up unions.”

Oh,” Devlin said. “Evil corporate businesswoman things, you mean.”

I shrugged. “Pretty much.”

From the way you describe her,” Michel said cautiously, “it does not seem like the two of you had a very good relationship.”

With effort, I managed to suppress the scoff threatening to make its way out of my throat. “Yeah. Yeah, we’ll go with that.”

We stared at each other in silence for a minute or two, occasionally picking at the remnants of our meal. Mila spoke first.

Since the two of you don’t even like to talk about the possibility of things going wrong, does that mean it’s my job to be the realist?” She folded a receipt into a tiny wedge of paper, then used to pick at her fingernails. “Or is someone else going to take on that job?”

We aren’t against talking about theories,” Devlin protested. “We’re just against talking about successes before we’ve cleared the zone and fenced the goods.”

Which we aren’t doing this time.”

Well…no, we aren’t, but you know what I mean. Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched and so on.”

Michel wrinkled his nose as he tried to piece together the idiom. I found myself intensely interested to learn which idioms he innately understood and which ones he had to work his way through. I would have thought the chicken idiom common knowledge, despite the language barrier, but a good fifteen seconds ticked away before comprehension dawned on his expression.

Let’s talk theories, then,” Mila said. “Sarah’s got a plan to get the information she needs. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that this isn’t going to go as smoothly as she thinks.”

I frowned at her. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

She raised an eyebrow in response. “Every single time we’ve come up with a plan, that plan has gone to shit within minutes of first engagement. I’m just trying to learn from our mistakes.”

She’s got a point,” Devlin said.

Hearing that from Devlin, the undisputed master of ‘survival in a time of chaos,’ stung a bit. More than it stung, however, his concern forced me to confront the possibility that I was being too glib about what we had to do in Georgia.

What do you have in mind, then?” I asked Mila. I took considerable effort to modulate my tone, just in case some of my barely suppressed irritation and anxiety mixed together and yielded unpleasant results.

I’d like the chance to actually gather information, for a change,” she said. “It’d be nice to know something about the area before someone starts shooting at us.”

You are thinking of an escape route?” Michel asked. Mila nodded twice before he continued. “I will find a map when we were settled and draw up a few possibilities.”

That’s one thing checked off the list,” Mila said. “Although we’ll still have to get a car at some point, but that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

I shifted my weight and picked pointlessly at a chunk of fried skin on the plate that I had no intention of eating. Now that she’d started up, Mila was rapidly warming to the subject of our security. It was her area of expertise – at least, not counting however many assassinations she’d carried out before falling out with our Merry Band – and she rarely got the opportunity to exercise those skills. Normally, we shifted positions and bases too often for her to really dig her heels in. Besides, more often than not, we were playing offense, attacking the Magi’s agents from positions of secrecy and destroying them before they had a chance to strike back.

My grandmother was an older woman who, despite its use on a near-daily basis, refused to learn about computers. She wasn’t a threat, in and of herself, but there were more than enough security guards who could give us a hard time. And even that was assuming that none of the guards had been subverted to the Magi’s cause. Gaining access to the personal server of a titan of industry like my grandmother was right up their alley, after all.

All said, I couldn’t in good conscience stop Mila from outlining every possible precaution, especially when there was a better than fair chance that we’d either end up using them or deploying them as decoys before the next forty-eight hours ran out.

What else?” I asked.

Mila seemed to read my entire thought process from a single glance into my eyes. “I don’t have weapons,” she said, lowering her voice. “I’m going to need to find some of those again.”

You know we couldn’t figure out a way to get your gear on board the plane,” Devlin said. “Maybe with a little more time, I could have found some pretext for you carrying heavy artillery on board a plane, but even then…probably not.”

I’m just saying.” Mila spoke the words in a tone that clearly said she actually was complaining, but didn’t want to make the fact known. “Guards equal guns and, moving forward, I don’t want to be the only person in the game with my hands tied behind my back.”

She followed that up with a significant look at Devlin.

Look,” he said, “if we could have found a way to get your equipment on board the plane without triggering an international incident, we would have. But that just wasn’t feasible, so you’re going to have to deal.”

I always have to deal,” Mila said. There wasn’t any real heat in her voice, so much as the implication of heat. “This is hardly the first time I’ve had to hop in a plane at the last minute.”

Then what are you complaining about?”

She pursed her lips. “You know, I’m really not sure. Maybe you’re just rubbing off on me.”

Devlin responded to that with an incredibly sour look.

Mila favored him with a sarcastic little smile before her expression turned serious again. “Third point. Do you have any idea what you’ll do if you do find the Mouse? Say he’s still in the area and you’re able to track him down; how are you going to convince him to speak with the Community if he’s already decided to go into hiding?”

I’d gone over that eventuality in my head a dozen times during the flight and, thus far, hadn’t come up with any satisfactory answers except for the most obvious and uncomfortable one. If the Mouse was feeling skittish already – and who wouldn’t be, with the looming specter of Caelum in the wings – there wasn’t going to be any digital means of establishing trust. I’d have to meet him. He and I had tossed the idea around previously but I’d secretly been hoping for any other option to present itself.

None had.

But I didn’t want to tell that to the team. I wasn’t exactly keeping it a secret. I just didn’t want them to start worrying about that now, instead of keeping their heads in the moment. Of course, I was fully aware of my hypocrisy, but I’d grown up in the South. I was capable of believing two fully opposing viewpoints at the same time.

Let’s get through this,” I said out loud, “and worry about what comes after, after. Sound fair?”

One of Mila’s eyebrows twitched. The gesture was impossibly subtle, almost certainly unconscious, but it gave me a window into the woman’s thought processes. Not a very large window, but more than she usually left open. Mila knew I was hiding something.

Fair,” she said, holding eye contact for the barest fraction of a second. Then, she closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Those are my only concerns, then. I’ll raise anything else that occurs to me when it becomes necessary.”

She didn’t say it and she even hid it from her features well enough that I doubted even Devlin would be able to pry it from her nonverbal tics, but I knew she’d have questions for me later. Call it instinct, call it a gut feeling, even call it women’s intuition. But Mila hadn’t fallen for my slight deception and I expected to hear more about that at her earliest opportunity.

My phone vibrated on the table. I checked it and, after reading the short message on the display, pushed any thoughts of future conversations out of my head. “That’s the car service,” I said. “Let’s gather our gear and get this started. Sooner we touch base with grandma at the office, the sooner we can be on the next flight out of here and off to our next stop.”

You do not want to be in any location for too long,” Michel mused, mostly to himself, “so long as this Caelum is still a factor, no?”

I shivered. “I’ll sleep a lot more comfortably when I’ve had the chance to really hunker down and put up some solid defenses; let’s go with that, for the moment, and panic about other things when we have to.”

Why, Sarah,” Devlin said, “that almost seemed like something I would say.”

I flinched and covered the involuntary movement with a sneeze. I thought about the potential meeting I was keeping to myself. There was a tangible amount of risk that went with any in-person meeting and those were risks I’d gone out of my way to avoid. In order to save the Mouse, I’d have to voluntarily strip myself off the protection of anonymity. To get him out of trouble, I’d have to drop my own defenses during a time of subtle warfare.

I also thought about the fact that, in a small way, my secrecy was exactly the sort of thing that had poisoned my marriage to Devlin. There had been one big lie, sure, but the ground for that deception had been watered with dozens of small half-truths and misdirections. It only took one untruth to start the trickle.

I forced myself to smile at Devlin. “Maybe Mila’s right,” I said. “Maybe you’re just starting to rub off on me.”

Internally, I prayed that wasn’t the case.

Chapter 32

Atlanta’s international airport is one of the busiest in the world. Flights from all corners of the globe terminated or passed through those terminals, filling the airport with a dozen different languages and a general tumult of noise that bordered on open chaos. I’d purchased our tickets using four different fake names, each one tied to its own fictional identity. Those psuedonyms had years of credit history – apartment rentals, investments, and an appreciable amount of accumulated debt – and they’d been specifically designed to resist investigation by anyone, except for the supremely talented and motivated. It was a ritual we’d undergone several times since London and, with the notable exception of the Lady, it had thus far managed to keep us from walking into an ambush.

And yet, with all of those precautions in place, I exited the airplane in a state of near panic.

Your hands are shaking,” Mila said. She was behind me, carrying the majority of our carry-on luggage without any noticeable signs of struggle. Devlin had argued for the right to carry his own bags, but she’d ignored him and simply picked up the luggage without waiting for permission. “Is there something I should be worried about?”

No, no,” I said. “I’m being ridiculous.”

Ridiculous things keep happening to us,” Mila pointed out. “Might be better to say what you’re thinking, just so that we don’t get blindsided later.”

I shook my head. “It’s not like that. It’s just…I don’t even know. Part of me feels like my grandmother is going to waiting for me just around the corner, chock full of judgment and ridicule.”

Mila made a vaguely confused noise in her throat. “Did you tell her you were coming?”

Not in so many words, no. I needed to make sure that she wasn’t going to be away on business, which means I had to send her an email. But I didn’t tell her exactly when I was going to touch down.”

So why would she be waiting for you?”

I struggled to find a metaphor that she might understand. Complaining to Devlin about my family life was one thing; his issues were well-trod ground and, besides, he wasn’t the type of person to attack me for any perceived insensitivity. Neither was Mila, for that matter. But what I’d managed to piece together about her past made my own history seem like an episode of Full House. One of the cheerier episodes, no less.

Imagine someone like the Lady, alright?” I began, crafting the metaphor as I went. “She’s nowhere near as bad as the Lady, of course, but my grandmother has cultivated an impressive ability to just know things that you’d rather she not.”

Like?”

We moved forward a bit in the line and I took the opportunity to glance backwards, past Mila. Devlin was six or seven people back, one person ahead of Michel. They were conversing at a volume too low for me to hear but, judging from the occasional gestures on Devlin’s part, it seemed fair to guess that Devlin was outlining some finer point of how to pick locks. That couldn’t possibly have been a safe conversation to have in public, even if that ‘public’ was entirely too loud for anyone to hear a single conversation among the cacophony.

I put that out of my mind. Devlin knew what he could and couldn’t say in public, better than I did. There was enough on my mind without adding an analysis of proper thief etiquette.

Boys,” I said to Mila, a little belatedly. She didn’t show any sign of irritation at my slightly delayed answer. “Just for instance. It was like she had a sixth sense when it came to finding out when one of her grandkids had done something wrong.”

Mila tilted her head. “Seems like that’d be kind of a bad thing for someone in our business, don’t you think?”

Probably,” I agreed, “if she had the imagination to think of something like this. The first time I used her server as a proxy – there was a local charity dinner, and most of the money wasn’t going where they said it was – I ended up getting back to her house after my curfew. She was convinced that I’d sneaked out to see my secret boyfriend for months. I don’t think she ever gave up on the idea, so much as she realized I wasn’t going to break under pressure.”

Thinking of that particular evening triggered another memory: the cancer charity where I’d met a charming thief who had seen me…maybe the first person who had ever really seen me, up to that point in my life.

I kept that thought to myself, though. Mila might not mean anything untoward by her questions – in fact, it was entirely possible that she simply didn’t understand when her questions verged on personal matters – but that didn’t mean I wanted to share every secret with her, either. Some memories were best kept only to their original owners.

I thought you meant sex,” Mila said.

An older gentleman directly behind Mila looked up sharply from his phone. Mila turned and met his gaze. The eye contact lasted for maybe fifteen uncomfortable seconds before the older man coughed, mumbled some apology, and found something interesting to look at on his phone.

I suppressed a chuckle, but only with a great deal of effort. “You can’t say things like that in the South. Have you ever been here before?”

You mean the Bible Belt, specifically? No, not on business.”

Really?”

Why, is that surprising?”

The land of passive-aggressiveness seemed like exactly the sort of place where feuds would be settled via assassin, instead of face-to-face confrontation. I couldn’t exactly say that, though. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how Mila would deal with any reference to her previous employment. For another, I imagined that more people than the older gentleman would be very interested in an open discussion about the merits of murder-for-hire and which countries were the most lucrative for work.

A little surprising,” I said. “I’ll tell you about it later.”

Mila accepted that answer with a slight nod and lapsed back into companionable silence. We cleared security without any problems and made our way over to a table in the food court, where we could wait for the other two members of our team. After a few minutes, Mila noticed a cart stocked with chocolate covered pralines and left me to examine the wares. Her bags, complete with Sam’s carrying case, stayed under the table.

Sam had dealt with the flight in typical feline fashion: the occasional meow of complaint, coupled with an intense air of superiority. Even now, he seemed to narrow his eyes up at me through the grates of his carrying case.

You and me both, pal,” I said. “Hopefully we can get out of here and find somewhere for you to stretch your legs.”

Sam tilted his head, just like his owner, and said nothing meaningful in reply.

We won’t – I mean, we shouldn’t – be here too long. It’s a pretty quick trip over to the house and then you’ll be free to roam. Who knows? Maybe we can find a ride that won’t mind it if we let you out early.”

The cat either growled at my offer or purred at the prospect. It was difficult to tell which noise corresponded to which emotions.

You know,” Devlin said from behind me, “most people don’t talk to their pets in public. Gives the wrong idea, you see.”

One of the things I’d learned about myself since becoming involved with the Lady’s impossible job was that my reflexes apparently had preferences. Mila’s sudden departures and arrivals still set my nerves on edge, and I’d had plenty of time to get used to her nature. But Devlin could walk right behind me, without making a sound – probably on purpose, knowing him – and I never felt surprised or alarmed by his presence.

Dr. Bridges would probably have a lot to say about that.

I’m not the one who discussing tradecraft in the middle of the security line,” I pointed out.

Michel works with cars,” Devlin said. “It’s entirely possible that he’d have a legitimate reason for that sort of knowledge. Besides, I wasn’t getting into any specifics. What’d you say to that old man earlier to get his attention, by the way? He was muttering something about the new generation and respect, last time I saw him.”

Would you believe me if I said it was girl stuff?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “With Mila?”

It could happen.” I looked around at my immediate surroundings and changed the subject before he could start reading my micro-expressions. “Where’s Michel?”

Devlin pointed in the direction of one of the restaurants. “Apparently,” he said, “our Frenchman has never actually been to the States. He wanted to try some of the local cuisine, so I suggested he grab something with a bit of local flavor.”

I looked in the direction he was indicating and saw Michel standing in line at a Paschal’s. Even from this distance, I could see how excited he was. I wondered if he’d even know what to order and decided, after a moment, that an attractive black man with a French accent would receive whatever help he needed from the middle-aged women behind the counter.

Devlin took a seat opposite me and began massaging his legs. “I miss the train. Is that weird?”

It was a comfortable ride,” I agreed. “I mean, I would’ve gotten us first class tickets, but…”

But we didn’t and don’t have the time to spare,” Devlin finished for me. “I know. Doesn’t mean I can’t still complain, though.”

Privately, I agreed with him. My own legs were buzzing with discomfort. But I wasn’t going to let go of the rare opportunity to feign superiority.

We didn’t have to wait long for Mila and Michel to return. Michel came first, somehow managing to balance four full plates of Southern comfort food in his two arms. Fried chicken, macaroni & cheese, and collard greens released a considerable volume of delectably scented steam into the air. My mouth began watering at the sight. There were things I disliked about coming home, but the food wasn’t on that list.

None of us tore into the food until Mila returned with her arms full of various deep-fried treats and chocolate covered fruits. I couldn’t quite suppress a flash of pique at her dietary choices. I wasn’t exactly out of shape, but I owed as much of my figure to genetics as I did to exercise. Or…perhaps it was more accurate to say that I owed all of my figure to genetics, seeing as I avoided exercise whenever possible. It just seemed unfair that Mila could consume however many sugary calories she wanted, without suffering the consequences.

It occurred to me that I could easily join her on her morning workouts, but that was obviously out of the question.

Our various culinary spoils took up almost the entire table. I managed to keep a small space, just barely large enough for my laptop, and opened up a series of programs while everyone else began taking portions of food for themselves.

I have eaten chicken before,” Michel said, around a mouthful of fried chicken, “but it was nothing like this.”

I snorted. “This is from a chain restaurant. Wait until Devlin figures out the recipe and starts making this on the road.”

Aww,” Devlin said. “That was almost a compliment.”

I swatted at him with my own chicken leg. “Don’t get cocky.”

Perish the thought,” he said. “So, you’ve got your laptop out. Do we need to turn this into a working dinner? Or, uh…breakfast? I’m not really sure what meal it is, what with our flight across multiple time zones.”

I took a deep breath and forced myself to think past the immediate feeling of camaraderie and to focus on the job ahead. “Yeah. You and I talked about it a little bit on the plane, but we all need to be on the same page.”

I quickly outlined our goals in Atlanta and a loose idea of our timeline. Michel and Mila both knew as much about the Community as Devlin did – and I still hadn’t given him the full breadth of available information, for the sake of practicality – and they grasped the seriousness of the situation with a minimum of additional explanation.

What if your friend, this…Mouse, isn’t here?” Michel asked.

I’m really hoping that he is, for obvious reasons,” I said. “But if he isn’t, then I’ll have to hope to find something I can use to get the Community to back down or at least extend my deadline.”

Mila downed a huge forkful of macaroni & cheese, followed by an equally oversized swallow of sweet tea. “And Caelum? What do we do about him?”

We don’t do anything,” I said immediately.

You’ll handle that?”

I shook my head. “If Caelum is in town, then we’re going to cross our fingers and try very hard not to be noticed. We’ll deal with him if, and only if, it’s directly necessary to get in contact with the Mouse.”

Devlin chewed thoughtfully on some collard greens for a few seconds. With his free hand, he jotted down a note on a small Steno pad under the table, before he turned his eyes back up to meet mine. “It’s that serious?”

More than you can possibly know,” I said. “I won’t get into the specifics because – no offense – you won’t understand what I’m talking about.”

He shrugged and accepted that assessment of his technical skills without complaint. “But you do? Understand it, I mean?”

Not really, no. The last time Caelum showed up, he did things with code that I still don’t quite get. The Community spent years trying to reverse engineer his techniques and, at last check, we’re still only getting the general outline of his abilities. Assume that he’s been progressing in the interim years and…yeah. Let’s just say that Caelum is beyond our abilities to handle and we need to treat him like a version of Adlai who isn’t overly concerned with things like the law.”

Devlin swallowed nervously. That metaphor must have hit home. “But he isn’t after you, at the moment?”

Somehow, he got the idea that the Mouse is responsible for some of the things we’ve been doing,” I said. “That means we’ve got a little bit of latitude to act, so long as we don’t draw any attention to ourselves. Thing is, we shouldn’t need to act at all.”

You just need access to your grandmother’s server,” Michel said.

Basically. I can get that in a few different ways, but the simplest way will be to just use her computer. With a little bit of time, I can pull up a list of everyone who’s accessed the server and trace things from there.”

And when things can’t be that simple?” Devlin asked.

I noticed that he hadn’t said ‘if things don’t go that simple.’ He might have added the provision unconsciously or it might have been a deliberate phrasing, predicated by his strong belief in jinxes. Either way, I didn’t see any particular need to refute the sentiment.

I’ve got options,” I said. “We’ve got options. I don’t want to use them, but they are in place. I’d just rather not get into the specifics of those until they’re absolutely necessary, if possible.”

Devlin considered that for a heartbeat or two and then nodded. “What’s our first step, then?”

I tore off a large piece of chicken, savoring the taste and classifying it as the best possible memory of the formative years I’d spent under my grandmother’s thumb.

Over the river,” I muttered, mostly to myself, “and through the woods, I guess.”

Chapter 31

We were packed to leave Tangiers within an hour; no more than thirty minutes after that, we were in the air. Neither Michel nor Mila raised the slightest complaint about the rushed nature of our departure. Any whining from the hardened bodyguard would have been a shock, but Michel…I kept finding myself impressed with his fortitude. Devlin had made the right call, bringing our driver fully into the fold months prior. In almost no time at all, I’d grown so accustomed to working with this ragtag team that I could hardly imagine what it’d been like to work with less cohesive groups.

I chewed over that thought in the comfortable seats aboard the private flight I’d managed to charter. From what I’d gathered, the occasional group of thieves formed up by necessity if, for instance, a target with superlative defenses, made itself available for pilfering. But those groups rarely stayed together after completing their task. In fact, most of the time, one party or another couldn’t wait to backstab the rest of his or her compatriots and the team dissolved into infighting before anything could be accomplished.

Smaller teams, like Devlin and I had been in the long distant past, had a better chance of making it work over the long-term. It still wasn’t a great success rate, but it did happen. We’d hardly been the only husband-wife team working in the business, just the most successful.

But the current team had basically been thrown together by blind chance. I didn’t know that anyone had ever been able to weld together such drastically different personalities with such a high degree of efficacy before. But, if they’d been able to accomplish even half of what we were doing, would I even have heard of them?

As I left my mind drift between unconnected thoughts, it turned from pleasant thoughts of my team to decidedly less pleasant thoughts about our destination. Georgia…God, how long had it been since I’d been back to the estate? Even before I’d met with Devlin and alternately corrupted/allowed him to corrupt me, my relationship with the originating Fords had already begun to fray. Holidays and special events – weddings, anniversaries on occasion, every other annual family reunion – were the only times I was guaranteed to see my grandparents and extended family. After I’d gone deeper into the criminal underworld and glimpsed the possibilities that existed there, I’d effectively cut myself off from everyone.

It wasn’t malicious. There simply wasn’t any way to take on the sort of jobs I’d taken on, while splitting my attention. Of course, I couldn’t offer that explanation to my family, so the optics of my sudden retreat into “work” and away from “family” hadn’t been…well-received. According to my grandfather, original patriarch of the Ford family name and a superior son of a bitch cut from the roughest possible cloth, I’d regret walking away from the only people in the world who had to care about me. I understood the point he was trying to make – namely, that family members would ultimately be the only people with my best interests at heart – but that hadn’t been the point I’d taken from his innumerable lectures.

I didn’t want someone to care about me because they had to. I wanted someone to choose me, out of all other options. There had been plenty of boys circling like vultures since my eighteenth birthday and fake friends who conveniently always left their wallets at home. That was part and parcel of being a Ford. But for family? I wanted more.

In Devlin, I’d found what I’d been looking for. For years, I reveled in it. And then – like I should have known would happen – he’d fucked it all up.

As if summoned by the darkening direction of my thoughts, Devlin picked that exact moment to return from the bathroom. He approached me, noticed that I had stretched my body out to the length of both seats, and collapsed into the empty row behind me.

What’re you thinking about?” Devlin asked, without preamble.

What makes you think I’m thinking about something?”

Other than a wealth of practical experience?”

I made a face, comforted by the knowledge that he wouldn’t be able to see my expression from his position. Working with an ex was difficult enough, without said ex being preternaturally capable of simply ignoring any facade I put up. It didn’t help that both Mila and Michel were fast asleep and therefore incapable of providing a buffer.

Trying to decide how this is going to go when we land,” I said. That was the truth, if not the whole and complete truth.

Devlin didn’t say anything. He stayed silent long enough that I turned my head slightly and peeked between the seats, just to see if he’d fallen back asleep. He hadn’t, of course. His eyes were focused on something in the middle distance and his eyebrows were a little lower than normal, but he was still conscious.

What are you thinking about?” I asked.

He blinked, then returned his focus to me. “Nothing important,” he said.

Well that’s not fair. I told you what was on my mind.”

I guessed there was something on your mind,” he pointed out, “and then you tried to dodge the question.”

Doesn’t change the facts, Dev. What’s bothering you?”

What makes you think something’s bothering me?”

I turned fully in the seat, getting my knees under me, so that I could look over the seat and meet Devlin’s eyes. It was easy enough to tell that he was anxious. He was more than capable of disguising his emotions, even from me, if he were suitably motivated. But, exhausted after nearly twenty-four hours of active conflict, it seemed like he wasn’t going to bother with the effort. “Is something bothering you?”

We maintained eye contact for a few heartbeats before he looked away. “Not really,” he said. “I’m just wondering…well, it’s kind of like what you said.”

You’re worried about my old house?”

He shook his head. “Yes and no. I’m just wondering where all of this is headed. After Georgia, after whatever fresh hell we have to go through in order to find your friend…hell, even after we finish dancing on the Lady’s strings. What happens after that?”

I blinked. Devlin, thinking about the future, was an oddity that deserved greater examination. It was so out of his basic character that I temporarily forgot about my own brooding.

I hadn’t really thought about it,” I admitted. “It’s been kind of difficult to think long-term.”

Well, that’s an early frontrunner for ‘understatement of the year,’” Devlin said.

Don’t be an ass.”

Sorry, sorry. Stress plus second thoughts minus sleep equals…” He gestured at his body with a broad gesture.

It’s fine. I get it. I was sitting here thinking about the opposite of what’s on your mind, though.”

Oh?”

I nodded. “I don’t think I’ve seen my grandmother since Zeke died. Even then, I was only barely at the funeral.”

When was that?”

I closed my eyes for a moment, dredging up the relevant memory from the depths of my mind. “It would have been just after Laos. Remember, with the counterfeit diamonds?”

Devlin looked confused, just for a second, and then he rolled his eyes. “Oh God, those elephants were the worst. You’d already caught a flight, so you didn’t have to deal with the literal clean-up.” He paused. “Who was Zeke?”

My grandfather,” I said plainly.

I almost literally flinched away from the shift in expression on Devlin’s face. One second, we’d been casually joking about one of our more ridiculous jobs; the next, he looked like someone had slapped him across the face. “You haven’t seen your grandmother since your grandfather died?”

I shrugged. “She wouldn’t admit it – no self-respecting Southern woman would ever give up the opportunity to snipe passive-aggressively – but it’s been mutual. The two of us just don’t have a lot to talk about.”

But…but…she’s your grandmother.”

And she’s also a part of a generation where it was expected that women kept quiet and let their husbands do the talking.” I gave him a sour smile. “Of course, she never actually did that, but it hasn’t stopped her from judging the hell out of me for daring to work a regular job and wear pants in public.”

Devlin’s eyebrow went up a fraction of an inch.

Okay,” I amended, “the job thing might be fair, even if she doesn’t know about it. The dress thing stands on its own, though. She and I never got along. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actually get along with anyone, come to think of it.”

Not even your grandfather?”

I shook my head. “Different people, different times. They were always cordial to each other, especially when there was anyone nearby who might be interested in selling stories to the tabloids, but it always felt empty. If you said that they’d only got married to have kids and legitimize their burgeoning empire, I don’t think there’d be a single Ford who wouldn’t privately agree with you.”

Devlin opened his mouth, like he had something to say, but closed it without speaking. He repeated that two more times, clearly in the depths of some unutterable struggle, before my jet-lagged mind pulled itself fully out of self pity and connected some dots. Devlin had no more family. His father had walked out of his life without leaving so much of a goodbye note. His mother had physically died almost a decade ago, but she’d emotionally died on the same day as his father’s departure. To him, the concept of having family, but simply not caring to see them, must have been horrifying.

Pity would send the wrong message, but I didn’t have the stomach to continue barreling through his emotional minefield, now that I’d realized where my figurative feet were. I decided to utilize an ancient Ford family technique, in order to avoid stepping on his hot button anymore: I changed the subject.

So,” I said, “we spent two days in Tangiers. The flight’s going to cost us…oh, fourteen hours. Round that off to a full day, so that we can get settled and rested up. That leaves us four days, give or take. Think we can pull it off?”

Devlin had too much experience in the subtle arts of conversation. I’d spent a lifetime navigating journalists and backbiting friends, but his skill eclipsed mine. There was no way he wouldn’t notice what I was doing.

And he did notice, of course. His eyebrows twitched, the corners of his mouth inched upward, and he inclined his head an impossibly small distance in appreciation.

Of course,” Devlin said. “Four days is almost too much time. We should set another deadline, just to spend the rest of the time coming up with suitably dramatic ways to reveal the information to your Community.”

It’s not my Community.” I paused. “And I’m sure we can find the time to work on the entrances while we’re running down our leads.”

Speaking of leads…?” He left the sentence open, inviting me to fill in the rest on his behalf.

Leads,” I repeated. “About those.”

I understood that you found an email originating from a particular part of the state,” Devlin said. “And that we need to go back, in order to find out more information. I just don’t know what information we’re looking for…or why we need to go back there to find it. Isn’t everything networked?”

Devlin was a man composed entirely of opposing principles. The same person capable of instantly reading a person’s psyche and tailoring a personality, designed specifically to achieve a desired goal was also the man utterly incapable of learning any language more complicated than Pig Latin. And, even then, he could only accurately translate things after a period of intense study. So it shouldn’t have been surprising when he displayed his absolute, staggering ignorance when it came to exactly what I did and what I should not do.

The server in question is connected to the internet, yes, but it’s vastly simpler to skip through whatever electronic security measures the owners have put in place since my day.”

Security measures,” Devlin asked, “like what?”

For remote access?” I thought about the question for a little bit. “When I was still using that server, I used some basic traps. Keyloggers, IP trackers, that sort of thing.”

Devlin gave me a long, blank look in response.

Nothing that would technically stop someone from getting into the system,” I explained. “But it would let me know that someone was trying to access it and I’d be able to find out who was behind the attack.”

Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose instead of answering. “Anyway. I could remotely log into the server, but if someone else managed to get in, there’s no telling what sort of goodies they left. It’s easier to just physically access the server, without running a risk of leaving an IP address behind. Understand?”

I think I’ve got the broad strokes,” Devlin said. He tapped an index finger to his bottom lip in thought for a few moments. “What are you hoping to find?”

In a perfect world, there would be a direct link back to the Mouse. An email address I can contact him through or something with a GPS single attached to it, for instance.”

In a perfect world, sure. But in this world?”

I sighed. “Anything’s better than what we don’t have right now. Whatever I can dig up will just have to be enough.”

Neither of us spoke for a minute or two. I shifted my legs so that I could settle into a more comfortable position and Devlin, almost unconsciously, did something similar. Before we’d slipped out of Tangiers, he’d taken the time to change into a pair of faded jeans and a short sleeved polo shirt. The shirt wasn’t too small for him, per se, but it did stretch appreciably around his biceps and shoulders. There was more muscle on him than I remembered from the good old days. Some of that probably came from Mila’s incessant training and the demands of her physical exercise regimen. The rest, I assumed, originated from his two and half year stretch behind bars.

He’d never been a very big man, in height or in musculature, but I couldn’t keep my eyes from noticing exactly how well he’d filled out since our divorce.

Devlin rolled his shoulders, one at a time, and lifted an eyebrow. “What is it?”

What?” Warmth flooded into my cheeks as I realized I’d been staring. Thank God I couldn’t actually blush. “I was…what?”

The server,” Devlin clarified. “Is it something we could just physically steal?”

I barely kept myself from exhaling in relief. “Oh, uh…no, nothing like that. I mean, we could, but it wouldn’t do much good. I’ll need it connected to a lot of infrastructure and I’m not about to build my own server from the ground up. I don’t have the time, for one thing, and it’s not really my skillset.”

Ah.” He nodded, lapsing back into thought for a few heartbeats. “What are we going to do then?”

We aren’t going to do much of anything,” I said. “I, on the other hand, am going to check in with my grandmother and hope that she isn’t holding a grudge over all the missed holiday visits.”

Why bother?” I could see that the concept of avoiding family bothered him, but Devlin managed to keep any recrimination from his voice. “If the two of you don’t get along, can’t we just get in and out of the state without even letting her know we’re here?”

I blew air out of my nostrils. “That’d be difficult to pull off, seeing as it’s her server.”

He blinked, slowly, and worked through the implications as best he could. Just because Devlin didn’t understand the technology, that didn’t mean he couldn’t connect dots in an abstract sense.

It’s hers personally?”

I shook my head. “For a very loose definition of personal.”

It’s something she uses for her business, then?”

Her very own email server, in fact, located in the local office,” I said. “I tried for years to tell her that the security wasn’t up to snuff, but she just would not listen.”

Let me see if I have this right,” Devlin said. He closed his eyes for a moment to gather up the disparate parts of our conversation and to form them into a cohesive whole. “We’re going to lift information from your grandmother’s computer, so that we can find your digital friend, before your online Top Eight decide to launch a suicidal attack against Matthew Broderick’s character from War Games?”

One,” I said, “a server is an entirely different thing than a computer. Two, you’re officially an old man the instant you start referencing Myspace. Three, you know I fell asleep during War Games.” I paused.

And?” Devlin prompted me.

Four: yeah, that’s pretty much it.” I gave him a helpless little shrug. “On the bright side…have you ever had shrimp and grits?”